Bilingual, bicultural or both?


Aspects-of-Culture-Beyond-Language-infograph-869x1024Difficult question to answer. In a world in which monolinguals are a dying breed, being bilingual or even multilingual isn’t just a thing, it’s the norm. What about bicultural, then? Are the two notions separate, or they go together?

If we were to believe Michael Agar, language and culture are inseparable. So much so, that in 1994 he invented a new term “languaculture” smashing the two existing terms together. After Agar, other researchers started to be interested in the link between language and culture. The most recent, in 2007, Karen Risager went even further explaining the implication of languaculture in sociology, psychology and linguistics. So, if the two terms are connected, bicultural cannot go without bilingual, right?

In order to answer this question, I have to pose another one: what is bicultural? At this point I imagine that all the people involved in this field of study are prepared to raise their eyebrow and wait to see how I escape from this trap. That is because to define culture in itself is a trap. Well, I will take Michael Byram’s understanding of culture, as “shared beliefs, values and behaviors of a social group”. So, following these guidelines, bicultural would be a person who is part of two such social groups. If you want a more informal definition of culture, click here.

Let’s take a hypothetical case, then. In Luxembourg, for example, there could exist a person who is Portuguese married to an Italian. For sure he must have at least an idea of his partner’s social group, or even be an active member of that social group, like attending Italian dinners and events, but at the same time staying in contact with his Portuguese roots. He could even learn some Italian along the way. Is this hypothetical person a bicultural?

10177244_10154041555681081_4560711172733996375_nSo, bilingual and bicultural are related, or one can go without the other? I think that one person can be bilingual without being bicultural, so without functioning or being part of two social groups. In our days we all learn in school a second language. Some of us can actually achieve what is called “a native level” in that second language, but that doesn’t mean that we are automatically bicultural. And I’m saying that even after I mentioned Agar’s languaculture. Of course a language is not just vocabulary and grammar and of course when learning a language one learns also habits and customs of people living in that language, but without being part of that particular social group, I don’t think that just because someone speaks two languages is also bicultural.

On the other hand one can be bicultural without being bilingual and again the Luxembourgish context is a good example. How many of the people living in Luxembourg are part of Luxembourgish traditions? Of course, we all enjoy the Schueberfouer, we eat pretzels on Bretzelsonndeg and we burn the winter with Buergbrennen. We might even have Luxembourgish friends and take part in their celebrations, but being Luxembourgish they adapt their language to the language that we master in order to have a conversation. So living in Luxembourg doesn’t necessarily mean that we all speak Luxembourgish. We are actually popping in and out of the Luxembourgish culture and interact with it occasionally, but that doesn’t mean we are bicultural, with one of the culture being Luxembourgish.

So in other words, Luxembourgish context is a good example to question the theory of languaculture and Agar.

Still the question remains: bilingual, bicultural or both?


  • Photo and inspiration
  • Another article about language and culture on TermCoord
  • Agar, M. 1994, Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation
  • Byram, M. 2003, On being “bicultural” and “intercultural”
  • Risager, K. 2006, Language and culture. Global flows and local complexity.

poza pentru siteWritten by Raluca Caranfil

Communication Trainee at TermCoord
Journalist & Student at the University of Luxembourg