The dimensions of culture learning and how they affect us abroad

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While talking about culture shock, I think it is also important to address the dimensions of culture learning, as we all also go through these as we travel and learn about other places, cultures and people and as we learn about ourselves through this process. Depending on how well we deal with and understand the dimensions of culture learning may allow us to better navigate culture shock. In Cultural Awareness, a book by Tomalin & Stempleski, there are five dimensions of culture learning and they look a little like this:

The Dimensions of Culture Learning include:

  1. Learning about the Self as a Cultural Being
  2. Learning about the Elements of Culture
  3. Culture Specific Learning
  4. Culture General Learning
  5. Learning about Learning

1. Learning about the Self as a Cultural Being
*Refers to becoming aware of how the culture(s) we are raised in contribute to our individual identities.

  • Our individual patterns often reflect influences of the larger cultural groups that surround us.
  • Cultural self-awareness is the foundation for intercultural competence
  • It enables us to understand that culture influences all of our interactions and that culture isn’t something found just in others.
  • It enables us to compare and contrast our own culture(s) with others.
  • Helps us to predict those areas where culture clashes may be most likely to occur and which clashes may be the most challenging.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised. I would like to think that more people reflect on their life and the paths they take or the choices they make on a daily basis but the older I become the more aware I am of people numbing themselves to their lives either partially or as a whole. I understand that some things seem too big to really deal with like war, death, sorrow, etc…and my position on this might seem very ‘west coast‘ of me, but I have no shame in the pride (and albeit luxury) of place and say that it is partially my home city, state and region (and state university) that really taught me clearly how to think globally and act locally. I think the news is meant not really to inform us of distant places and the current events they are experiencing, but rather to depress us because they are so far away and well, really what can we do for them, or to make us feel safe and smug in our homes with walls, roofs, water, and electricity with our big cars and all else that we have, “My life might not be the best, but at least I don’t have to deal with that, or live like that.”

Traveling is good. It is good for the individual and both people who are allowed to share culture (I know this is a generalization as there are countless examples of this not being the case) . What happens however, is that people are comfortable with what luxury they have (at least in America, and yes I know this is also gross generalization and there are exceptions) and too often look for that luxury when traveling outside of America. What happens might look something like what Seth Stevenson wrote about in 2004 for Slate Magazine in a five-part-piece titled, “Trying Really Hard to Like India.” In step two, Stevenson talks about the irony in the luxury of the villa he is staying in (as Paul McCartney once stayed there too) compared to life just outside of the hotel gates. The entire piece is actually funny, thoughtful, and critical without really being too over-the-top hard on either Americans or Indians. What I liked about this particular piece is that, on one hand while he is saying he wants to stay away from backpackers as they have become a cliché he is also addressing that where he too is staying has become a cliché if possibly not himself and his fellow American travelers. I am so fond of Stevenson’s piece, that it may warrant a return in this blog with its own post – we will see.

Depending on how much we know about ourselves as learners and cultural beings, even if we think we have no culture, helps us better understand and learn from the process of culture shock.

2. Learning about the Elements of Culture

  • To be effective culture learners we need to know what culture is.
  • Culture (with a capital C) refers to history, literature, geography, institutions, art and music, while culture (with a lower-case c) refers to behavioral culture. Behavioral culture includes “culturally influenced beliefs and perceptions, especially as expressed through language, but also through cultural behaviors that affect acceptability in the host community” (Tomalin & Stempleski 7).

This is an important point because I have heard both Americans and others say time and again, “America has no culture”. Really, we do it is an amalgamation of all the immigrant cultures mixed in with the culture established by the first settlers and national founders to create something unique and constantly changing. A people’s culture is constantly changing, if it wasn’t then time wouldn’t move forward. Yet, it is impossible to stop time and thus impossible to stop the shift of culture.

3. Culture Specific Learning

  • Refers more broadly to the intercultural experiences that are common to all who visit another culture, as well as the common ways cultures can differ.
  • Key ideas are values & communication styles and phenomena known as intercultural adjustment.
  • Adaptation: Change in behavior of a person or group in response to new or modified surroundings.
  • Culture shock, the feelings of isolation, rejection, etc., experienced when one culture is brought into sudden contact with another, as when a primitive tribe is confronted by modern civilization.
  • Acculturation: The modification of the culture of a group or individual as a result of contact with a different culture or the process by which the culture of a particular society is instilled in a human from infancy onward.
  • Assimilation: The process whereby a minority group gradually adapts to the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture.

Understanding these  ideas of values and communication styles, terms is a strategy that can help you develop strengths in culture-specific learning. Here, I think I have an interesting opportunity. I teach English to Germans and now I have lived here for about two years. The semester has just begin for the community college (*type of) school that I teach at and I have spent each class so far relating, what many of the Germans consider obvious, differences between American culture/behavior and German culture/behavior. If they don’t bring it up I do and at least so far, the conversations have been successful. Yet, that is the funny thing about cultural differences and understanding – I think it is going successfully but the proof is in the pudding and we shall see if all the students remain in my class throughout the semester.

4. Culture General Learning:

What is this and how is it different from number 3? You’ve got me there. I can only imagine that, since general learning doesn’t actually come first, it means that we learn about various aspects of a culture first and if we do not learn more than that we assume that specific learning is general and accurate across the board for that particular culture. This makes me think of the general stereotype that outsiders all too often think that the whole of German is ‘Bavaria‘ in that everyone celebrates Oktoberfest, wears Lederhosen, Dirndls and drinks half liters of hefewiezen beer with pretzels and weiβwurst (white sausages) or that the whole nation was roughly at one point in history (sixty plus years ago) and so still is in support of Hitler. Both of these points are false and the only way people would know this is if they came to Germany and talked to people here or learned more general information about the various history and parts of Germany.

5. Learning about learning

  • Strategic learners are self-empowered and more effective language and culture learners.

I hope to all that is holy that I never stop learning about learning and life in general. I think more people should be doing this as it would help our education systems greatly and the teachers who were never trained to be teachers but ended up being better than anything any of us could find in a school or other institution (I am speaking of parents, mentors, friends, etc.). If I wasn’t into this part, I don’t think I could be writing these words right now.


“Cultural Adjustment” Berkley International Office: University of California. 2011. 17.09.11.

Paige, R. Michael, et al. Maximizing Study Abroad: A Students’ Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use, Second Ed. Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition – Office of International Programs. University of Minnesota, 2009.

Parrish, Patrick & Jennifer A. Linder-VanBerschot. “Cultural Dimensions of Learning: Addressing the Challenges of Multicultural Instruction.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 11. 2. (05/2010): N.P.  PDF.…/TD/Cltural%20Dimensions%20of%20Learning.pdf  .17.09.11.

Tomalin, B. & Stempleski, S. (1993). Cultural awareness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Published by livingtheamericandreamineurope

I live in Europe, I am from America.

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