Mission Strategy Bulletin, New Series, Volume 7, Number 2

Language Shock, Culture Shock and How to Cope

Pat Hile, Guatemala

Once there was a mouse hole with three mice inside. One day they decided to go for a walk, but suddenly they heard a cat meowing. The mice were afraid and did not go for a walk. One of the mice listened carefully to see if the cat was still there or had left. After a long while they didn't hear any more "meows" of the cat, instead they heard a dog barking. So they all left the mouse hole. When they left, how surprised they were to see the cat there again waiting for them. The mice were not able to return to their hiding place and the cat ate them all. And the cat was very happy that he had tricked them. The cat exclaimed loudly: "How great it is to be bilingual."

Yes, it is nice to be bilingual and bicultural, but how do you do it? Let's begin by getting a definition of the terms in the title of this presentation: language shock and culture shock.


Language shock is the frustration and mental anguish that results in being reduced to the level of a two-year-old in one's ability to communicate.

In order to define culture shock, we must first define "culture". Culture means a lot more than knowing which side of the plate to put the fork on. Culture is defined as "all learned behavior which is socially acquired."[1] There are millions of rules, regulations, attitudes and values that make up any given culture. These rules and attitudes are learned from birth and are so internalized that they form a part of who and what we are. The difficulty is that other societies have a different set of rules, regulations, attitudes and values that govern their behavior. When the American goes to another country, he carries with him all of his own rules and attitudes. If the American were able to correctly differentiate between his own set of rules and those of his host country, there would be no serious problem. However, these rules have been internalized. He has come to believe that they are THE ONLY WAY to act and react. The issue is further confused by the fact that many of the actions and items in the two cultures are the same outwardly, but they differ in purpose, and they do not mean the same thing. For example, everyone knows how to wave goodbye. But in Latin America this same motion means "Come here".

Thus culture shock is the disorientation resulting from the removal or from the distortion of the cues, signs, rules and regulations that govern social interaction. I want to emphasize again that we are unaware of the many cues, clues, signs and symbols that are necessary for our psychological well-being. The reaction to these cues is automatic and ingrained. Thus we often have committed blunders before we have had time to think the situation through and react properly. Our own President gave us a good example of this right here in Panama. When Presidente Torrijos of Panama met Jimmy Carter, he tried to give him a friendly, cordial abraso (hug). To have done anything less would have shown disrespect for President Carter. Carter, however, reacted automatically to another man trying to hug him and quickly jumped back. This was equivalent to refusing to shake hands. No wonder we couldn't keep the Canal.

Culture shock is like the measles; it takes awhile to incubate. During the first weeks and months, one goes through a honeymoon stage. The people are so friendly, so helpful. The scenery is so breath-taking. The differences that are noticed are usually of a very superficial level and tend only to make things more exotic and exciting.

Then the new wears off. People get tired of carting you around. They get tired of intervening for you and shielding you. It begins to dawn on you just how different things really are and that you are on your own. The language turns out to be more difficult than you had expected. You are gently introduced to some of the blunders you have already made and you feel like someone just let all the air out of all four of your tires. Suddenly the honeymoon is over and the world of reality comes crashing down around you.

What Is Language Shock and Culture Shock Really Like?

It is not knowing how to ask where the bathroom is and this after being hit with Montezuma's Revenge. It is being given an answer about the bathroom and not understanding.

It is being corrected in what you say by a six-year-old. . .like the daughter of a preacher in Guatemala who laughed because I had failed to trill my "r". I had said aroz instead of arroz. I felt hurt. I had tried to trill my "r". I had done my best; I felt it was really not my fault that I couldn't produce a nice trilled "r". I felt like they were laughing at someone with a birth defect.

It is not knowing when to shake hands, when to rise, when to sit, and knowing that if you don't do the right thing you will probably offend someone.

It is being laughed at and made fun of because of something you said or did. You try to get an explanation, but no one can answer because they're laughing so hard. They try to explain but you don't understand. So you just stand there with a sheepish, silly grin on your face wishing you could disappear. It's like the missionary who told the immigration officials that his occupation was pecador instead of predicador. He had told them that he was a sinner instead of telling them that he was a preacher.

It is the continual frustration of not being able to express yourself; the continual frustration of not understanding what is said to you. It is not knowing for sure whether to answer with yes or no. One missionary said he finally learned how to respond with the Spanish equivalent of "You don't say." This answer seemed to fit almost any question.

It is the embarrassment you feel when something you have said has resulted in a most undesirable slang or vulgar expression. For example, a Peace Corps volunteer attended a local fiesta (party) and one of the village girls asked him if he would like to dance. Since he had on his heavy work boots, he kindly refused. In his poor Spanish he explained that he could not dance with boots. All that was fine except that he mispronounced the word for "boots: and was understood to have said, "Sorry, but I can't dance with prostitutes." However, "prostitutes" is a nice translation of the word that he was understood to have used.

There's also the example of the U.S. girl who was staying with a Guatemalan family while learning Spanish. She spent the night with one of her girlfriends, and the next day she explained to the Guatemalan family that she had spent the night with a friend -- but she used the masculine form of the word friend instead of the feminine. Thus she explained that she had spent the night with her boyfriend.

It is the frustration of not knowing what to say when meeting people; when to say thanks, how to receive and issue invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not to. This example comes from Africa: A single missionary girl accepted the gift of a chicken and found out later that by so doing she was engaged to be married.

It is not being able to express your own humor nor being able to understand theirs. I remember feeling so stupid trying to make a joke and then having people look at me with a blank stare. I know of a missionary who really makes the nationals laugh but the trouble is they are seldom laughing at the same thing. The real frustration here is knowing that you are humorous and cute and funny but no one knows it. Not only are you no longer funny but you have trouble understanding a joke. Or even worse, when you do understand it, it doesn't seem that funny.

It is the nagging fear that you'll never be able to learn the language. One day you think you are really making progress and the next you seem to be unable to say anything.

It is the embarrassment you feel when something you said or did offends someone and you have no words and no way to correct your mistake. There was a young North American who was part of a construction team rebuilding houses after the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala. He was a real hard worker and had only limited time, so each day at noon he belted down his food and then rushed back to the job without excusing himself. After all, he knew no Spanish. He was a good kid and really wanted to be known as a hard worker but instead he was remembered only as extremely crude and ill-mannered.

It is trying not to gag on a cup of corn gruel so as not to offend your host. You manage to finish it and hand your empty cup back saying how much you enjoyed it.

It is the sinking feeling in your stomach as your host refills your cup and hands it back.

It is the humiliation of having no way to express your intellectual level. No one knows how smart you really are. It seems you're always making mistakes and if it continues, people will get the idea you're dumb. Some people just can't stand that strain. The only way they know themselves is by not making mistakes. They cannot live with the fact that in order to learn a new language, they must make so many errors so consistently. Thus often the straight A types have a tough time learning a foreign language. In learning a new language not only do you learn a lot about other people, you also learn a lot about yourself. Most of us find that we are a lot more proud and arrogant than we had supposed.

It is the constant mental and emotional strain of thinking how to express yourself; the continual groping and grasping for a verb form or the right word. It is interesting to see people arrive on the field with their promises to really master the language. They boast that within a year or two they will have lost their gringo accent and be completely fluent. Usually within three weeks they would be willing to settle for just being able to remember how to ask where the bathroom is.

It is restraining yourself and remembering to be gracious as you're corrected for the umpteenth time in your pronunciation of some word or the misuse of some verb form.

It is the weakness that overwhelms you because you're always wrong. You just get sick and tired of saying and doing so many things incorrectly. It is discouraging to realize that you take yourself so seriously.

It is knowing that you'll just have to live down (or live with) your mistakes. Twelve years later people are still bringing up stupid things I did when I first tried to learn Spanish. This is an advantage of going to the mission field as a young person -- those who witness your mistakes will eventually die off.

It is knowing that there's no escape -- only time and diligent study can make things better.

It is NOT showing how much you don't know as yet. It is not that you recognize a difference between Latin and U.S. culture and make an effort to adjust. It's that you don't even understand what's really happening. You interpret what's happening in terms of your U.S. culture and inevitably reach the wrong or distorted conclusion. Everything is so different: gestures, facial expressions, customs, intonation patterns, even distance between speakers. This difference is accurately described by the Texan who visited a missionary and accompanied him to a Spanish worship service where the missionary preached. On the way home the Texan commented: "You know those people acted like they really understood what you were saying." The missionary was somewhat taken back but managed to reply that he certainly hoped they had understood him. The Texan replied, "Nope, it just ain't right. It don't seem like talkin'." We have laughed together and perhaps you feel like you can say you understand. I don't want to be snobby but let me kindly say you don't understand. You have to feel the gut-wrenching frustration and embarrassment first hand to really understand.

Before leaving the list of frustrations of language shock and culture shock, I would like to elaborate on the list of symptoms of culture shock. Culture shock expresses itself in excessive concern over cleanliness as manifested in excessive washing of hands; concern over drinking water and great concern over minor pains and illnesses. I remember going to a restaurant in Guatemala City with an American friend who ordered a glass of PURE water to accompany his meal. He really came down hard on the fact that he wanted agua PURA. I guess the poor waiter had had his fill of North Americans who wanted PURE water, so he replied, "Then you don't want your water with cream?"

There are other symptoms of culture shock such as fear of physical contact with the people. There is the absent-minded, far-away stare. Of course there is severe home-sickness -- that insatiable longing for a U.S. hamburger or a Hershey candy bar. As the frustration increases, one may burst out in fits of anger over delays. The missionary begins to develop an excessive fear of being cheated or robbed. Everyone is out to get him. The missionary often loses contact with reality and may even refuse to learn the language.

This is the crisis point. It is here that the missionary must decide whether he will buckle down and learn the language and learn about the people or whether he will decide that "no one can understand a Latin" and just give up trying. If the missionary should decide that the Latin is not meant to be understood, he will then settle down to the constant clash of his culture and the Latin culture. The more clashes he has, the more convinced he becomes of the Latin stereotype. He is a round peg in a square hole. After a period of several years, it will be impossible to convince him that he is in culture shock and that he has failed to properly understand the Latins. After all he has several years of first-hand experiences to back up all of his prejudices. Each clash only serves to push him further back into his gringo shell and reconfirm his prejudices. And his lack of cultural understanding will assure him of a never-ending supply of cultural clashes.

As we close this section, let me clarify that it is no disgrace to have any of the feelings listed above. Any of these symptoms of culture shock are perfectly normal. The trick is learning how to cope. And that is dealt with in the next section of this presentation.


At first I thought about listing a lot of specific areas where North Americans usually need to adjust in order to get along in Latin America, but I decided against that. First of all, I don't know all the areas where a person might need to adjust. Second, they are so numerous that it would take months to list them all. Third, people tend to regard such lists as tricks and gimmicks and often, although they might say and do the right thing, their attitude is not right. And last of all, to give such a list implies that language learning and cultural adjustment are merely a list of facts or a body of knowledge to be memorized and stored, when in fact, they are a set of skills and attitudes to be acquired and used. So I won't be giving a list of ten easy tricks to help you adjust in Latin America. Hopefully, I can share something even more basic and useful. How do we cope? By dealing with the real problem. Not the Latins, but we, ourselves, and our own attitudes are the problem.

A. The Real Secret: Become as a little child.

All of the items and situations listed above are frustrating. The amount of frustration depends on how willing we are to become as little children. Some say that anyone who learns a foreign language will go to Heaven because they have had to become as a child and Jesus promised the kingdom to little children and to those willing to be like them. Language learning and cultural adaptation is basically becoming as a child again. So everyone is laughing at you. So you made a stupid mistake. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, then and only then will you be laughing with them. If you storm out of the room in a huff, you'll just make the situation worse. You can't change the situation and you can't avoid making mistakes, so don't take yourself so seriously. Thomas Brewster states it this way:

"The adult is reluctant to act in "childish ways". His self-image has been established and restrains him from behavior which he interprets as childish. He doesn't want to make childish mistakes. But to be an effective language learner, the adult MUST be willing to be "child-like". Being child-like is different from being childish. It is a voluntary act requiring a special kind of maturity. Some adults scorn "child-likeness" for fear that it will be interpreted as "childishness". They are therefore unwilling to interact with people and to involve themselves in the community where their new language is spoken.[2]
Those unwilling to become as little children will have a difficult, if not impossible, time of learning a new language. Now let's list six specific areas where we need to become as little children in order to learn a new language.

  1. Make mistakes. One of the cute things we all like about little children are the mistakes they make while learning to speak. There is no way to learn a foreign language other than to make cute mistakes (even some mistakes that aren't so cute). If you wait until you can say things without a mistake, you'll never learn to speak fluently and will probably never learn to speak at all. One stupid mistake will help you remember a word or a verb form much quicker than hours of hard work with hand-written exercises. It may be a bit more painful, but it is the most efficient way.
  2. Don't take yourself and your mistakes too seriously. Very few children seem to get uptight or cry about the pressures of having to learn the language they were born into. So don't feel persecuted and feel sorry for yourself. That's why I presented that long list of frustrations. Everyone who has learned a language has gone through the same thing. Don't pray: "Why me, Lord? I've been praying for you to help me learn Spanish, and you let me make a stupid mistake like that? Why me, Lord?" Knock it off. It's not that serious. If you want to pray, and I think you should, pray that God will help you not to take yourself so seriously. Enjoy your language study, at least enjoy it as much as it can be enjoyed.
  3. Concentrate on the verbal, not the written. Have you ever seen a two-year-old studying an English grammar? However, since we are adults with the ability to read and analyze, we should take advantage of it. But never, NEVER should we use this advantage as a substitute for oral communication. There are millions of illiterates the world over who are able to speak two or three languages. Yet most of us want to retreat to the safety of a grammar book and to the solitude of a desk. I remember the case of an A.C.U. Spanish major who came to visit us in Guatemala. When he arrived, I had only been studying Spanish for six months and I have a language aptitude in the 25th percentile, and I could speak more Spanish than he could.
  4. Have a method. Children have a method of language learning: endless repetition. They have a method of cultural investigation: "Why, mommie, why?" Since we have the benefit of a broader educational background, we can refine our language techniques and methods. However, the most successful techniques are those which duplicate the language acquisition processes we used as small children. The best manual I know of to provide a solid method for language learning is: Language Acquisition Made Practical.[3]
  5. Be motivated. Children learn whatever languages they have to in order to communicate with their friends. I'm afraid that many of us are not convinced that we have to learn a second language in order to successfully comply with our calling as God's missionary. Most of the problems in failure to learn the language can be traced directly to one of the six items listed here. Very seldom does it have anything to do with low aptitude, low intelligence or poor memory. Language learning is HARD WORK. After you have injected all the fun and games you possibly can, there still remains just a whole lot of hard, hot sweaty work. Enthusiasm is not the same as will power. Will power is the gut level commitment to stick it out and do even the hard stuff. The best way to insure proper motivation is proper supervision. As Thomas Brewster states it: "People do what's inspected, not what's expected." We have such a program developed in Quezaltenango, including the supervision.
  6. Live where the language is spoken. This is so obvious that it is often overlooked. We all know that children pick up a language because they live where it is spoken. NOW let's clarify what we mean by living where the language is spoken. This means that you live WITH a Spanish-speaking family during your language study. It's the only way you can get exposure to the entire cultural framework. It means avoiding other people who speak English, and forcing yourself into contact with the Latin culture.


Culture shock is dealt with by learning to understand and appreciate the people. The key that unlocks the secrets hidden behind the doors of another culture is LANGUAGE. The same attitudes listed above for overcoming language shock will enable one to cope with culture shock. Arensberg and Niehoff in their book, Introducing Social Change, have a good description of how to cope with culture shock:

The only real cure for culture shock is a forced-drafted, purposeful pushing on ahead. The way to get over it is to work at making new persons and new ways familiar and known, to return to them again and again until all the strangeness is gone. Brooding about the situation certainly will not improve it. The real danger is that, at this early stage, the change agent will reject the local culture as inexplicable, then turn to his fellow countrymen and to familiar activities, as being the only sensible ones.[4]
So the missionary must avoid retreating into the U.S. ghetto on the mission field. The only way to overcome it is to get out and get with it. There comes a time when friendly help is the worst possible solution. To continue to help, to protect, to shield, to interpret, and to intervene in behalf of the person trying to adjust is no favor at all, but definite harm. A missionary once told his wife: "The church is not paying me to act as an interpreter between you and your maid. Do not ask me to intervene in your behalf again because I will kindly refuse to answer." That was the kindest thing he could have told his wife. He did her a big favor although she didn't think so at the time.

As was mentioned above, language is the key that unlocks the door of cultural understanding. Without a good control of the language a person is doomed to continual, perennial cultural shock. Eugene Nida makes this point:

A missionary's failure to identify himself with the people not in sympathy, but in empathy, is sometimes made more acute by reluctance, inability, or callousness to the proper use of the people's language. The proper use of language is not only the key to open the heart of non-Christians, but it can also help to open the culture-closed heart of a missionary to the unsuspected needs and aspirations of the people.[5]
In closing I would like to clarify that effective language acquisition and cultural adjustment will greatly enhance one's ministry. BUT in and of themselves they will not produce churches. The poor use of the language may guarantee that the missionary will not set up any churches, but just because he is fluent and bicultural is no sure sign that evangelism will be accomplished. You cannot substitute language and culture study for evangelistic zeal. May God help us to set up churches and may we do it fluently.

Remember the words of Jesus: "I tell you this, unless you repent and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of God." Matthew 18:2

[1]Eugene A. Nida, Customs and Cultures (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), p. 28.

[2]E. Thomas Brewster and Elizabeth S. Brewster, Language Acquisition Made Practical (Colorado Springs: Lingua House, 1976), p. 6.


[4]Conrad M. Arensberg and Arthur H. Niehoff, Introducing Social Change: a manual for Americans overseas (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1964), p. 189.

[5]Nida, p. 252.

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