What is cultural learning?

From what I’ve been reading, the meaning and terminology of cultural learning is still agreed upon as it is still a relatively new theoretical concept.  Look at the Wikipedia entry (as published in December 2014), and you should see that all the sources are from the 21st Century.  The purpose of this blog post is to clarify the meaning and its relevance (which seems obvious to me) to sojourning English language teachers.

Culture Learning Theory

Book cover of The Psychology of Culture ShockCultural learning refers to culture learning theory.  Although “learning theory” is in its name, cultural learning theory did not emerge from the field of education.  Rather it comes from psychology, specifically acculturation psychology, which looks at sociocultural adaptation.  My favorite resource on this field is The Psychology of Culture Shock by Colleen Ward, Stephen Bochner, and Adrian Furnham, all of whom are leading researchers in this field.  An excellent recent resource is the article, “Beyond Culture Learning Theory: What Can Personality Tell Us About Cultural Competence?” written by Wilson, Ward, & Fischer in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in 2013.  Below is a synopsis of their explanation of culture learning theory with my additions in parentheses.

Core assumptions

  • Cultural novices (new sojourning ELTs) have difficulties managing everyday social encounters
  • The culture-specific skills needed to (live and teach abroad) can be acquired through the learning process

It seems quite clear how culture learning theory applies to sojourning ELTs.  If you are or have been a sojourning ELT like me and my wife, you may be wondering why this common sense has to be called a theory.  After coming back from overseas, we found that it was apparent that this is not common sense.

Is that all?

Yes, cultural learning theory is quite simple to understand but it is complex to put to practice and research.  Wilson, Ward, & Fischer (2013) point out some of these complexities.  For the sake of my readers, I will mention the more practical complexities for sojourning ELTs first followed by those when using theory as a framework in research.  Both are in the form of questions.


  • To what extent does a sojourning ELT’s cultural learning change, if at all, over a period of time?
  • To what extent does previous overseas experience and/or previous ELT experience influence a sojourning ELT’s culture learning?
  • To what extent does cross-cultural training prior to departure or immediately upon arrival affect cultural learning?
  • To what extent does language fluency and communication skills facilitate or hinder cultural learning?
  • How do host nationals help sojourning ELTs acquire cultural competence and provide opportunities for observational learning?


  • How does cultural learning fit with other concepts such as sociocultural adaptation?
  • What are the situational variables related to the learning process?
  • What roles do intercultural interactions plays in the process of sociocultural adaptation?
  • How transferrable are skills across cultures?
  • How does perceived discrimination impede cultural learning?

My Theory

Data from my doctoral dissertation and my preliminary analysis of social media composed by sojourning ELTs have shown that most new ELTs are more concerned with their cultural learning than their professional learning.  By professional learning, I mean learning more about English language teaching practices, pedagogy, applied linguistics, etc.  I am interested in the relationship between these two types of learning and how sojourning ELTs perceive and engage in both types.


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