Culture and learning: acculturation vs. enculturation

A: I want to learn to dance tango so I’m taking lessons with some local teachers!

B: Pfff. Tango is a culture! To learn it you’ll have to move to Buenos Aires and maybe after 10 years of living and breathing tango there you might learn something about it.


One of the main obstacles to learning tango has to do with the confusion surrounding what precisely is Argentine in tango, what gives it that particular cultural character. The fact that it is not formalised and that it is attached to an ‘authentic culture’ is one of its main charms and attractions while at the same time surrounding it with a veil of mystery rendering it a quicksand of confusions. The authenticity of tango as a ‘living culture’ is probably the main obstacle for many to learning it to any degree of competence. Some people (in particular it seems ‘the English’) seem to find it an eternal source of mystery.

The main reason to formalise something is precisely to render it concrete and learnable (and hence also teachable) so that learners have a chance to get a grip on the subject matter. When the subject is a cultural product it becomes vague and ineffable with many contradictory opinions about it coming from different ‘authorities’ who are ‘insiders’ in the culture. Some people do manage to digest all this cultural information and come up with a workable interpretation of what it all means. Many more do not, giving up after investing in workshops with many ‘maestros’ who all profess to be teaching the ‘real’ and the ‘authentic’.

The meaning of ‘culture’

The problems begin with the vagueness inherent in the very notion of culture. The word ‘culture’ has two major meanings which are often mutually contradictory. If you Google the word here’s what you get:

1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively: “20th century popular culture”
    Synonyms: the arts, the humanities

2. The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society: “Afro-Caribbean culture”
   Synonyms: civilization, society, way of life, lifestyle

Culture can mean whatever a group of people, typically defined by a language and a defined territory, hold as having in common, their common values, interests and habits. So we might say that Australians like barbeques, beer and cricket. You can see that this already leads to problems because it is really true of Anglo-Australians and ignores all the other ethnic and indigenous groups, and even many of those do not necessarily like those things, though I guess they will accept that these are things that are identified with the mainstream culture there.

But in another sense, the word ‘culture’ is used to refer to educated, high or elite culture, that is, something that is not merely a ‘habit’ of a social group, but a set of cultural expressions that are in some sense preferable, of a higher quality, or a better way of doing things: a set of cultural achievements. Whereas the second meaning simply refers to some habits which a group of people prefer but that are not thereby necessarily preferable to or expected of other people, the first sense contains an implicit normative judgement about what is ‘better’ or ‘preferable’ more generally. For example, it makes sense in the first meaning to say that a person has no culture, meaning they are not cultivated or sophisticated, they’re either uneducated or plebs or perhaps even anti-culture as when we say someone is a Philistine. The British poet Matthew Arnold adopted the term from German to refer to a person who has

an anti-intellectual social attitude that undervalues and despises art and beauty, intellect and spirituality. A Philistine is a man or woman of smugly narrow mind and of conventional morality whose materialistic views and tastes indicate a lack of and an indifference to cultural and aesthetic values. (Wikipedia)

Notice that these two terms have such a different meaning that it is possible to say that a person’s culture is to be anti-culture! That would mean that a particular group’s habits and attitudes—hence their culture in the second sense—are such that they are Philistines—hence anti-culture in the first sense. We might say this of people who reject elitism or high art, who are egalitarian and narrowly practical.

The problem is that when people talk about the tango culture in Buenos Aires it is not at all clear which of these meanings they are using. They seem to be making a value-judgement and talking about what ought to be done or preferred while at the same time referring simply to what people dancing tango in Buenos Aires as a group do as anthropological datum.

The difference in these makes the difference whether learning ‘tango culture’ is a case of acculturation or enculturation. In the case of acculturation learning something is a matter of becoming a member of a cultural group or at least to become more like them. Typically, people assimilate to a cultural group that they like or feel they have something in common with, and they resist assimilation with people they dislike. Enculturation, on the other hand, is learning your own culture. In certain cases, learning a foreign culture is a case of enculturation, for example, when learning a foreign language is actually part of one’s culture, for example, if the foreign language is spoken by the elites or is a marker of education and status.

The muddle surrounding talk about tango culture is due to the fact that these different concepts are all bundled together and people utter sentences which use contradictory meanings of culture.

(1) That is not our tango (meaning ‘our culture’)
(2) In Buenos Aires milongas people do/don’t do X
(3) Tango is classic/sophisticated
(4) That is not traditional tango

In (1) people are referring to the tango danced by a particular group. How is this group defined? Presumably they can identify each other, but outsiders will be at a loss to figure out who is in and who is out of the group. Why should we prefer the tango danced by this group? They like dancing tango a certain way (whatever that is) and you may try to define a particular form but this would be an exercise in anthropology. For that to be useful in education you have to identify a reason why that form of tango is preferable: more pleasant, more healthy, more beautiful, etc. The same goes for statement (2): there are many different milongas, and so any such statement will be a generalisation which will always have exceptions; and it is not clear that it should inform what we do until it is followed by a reason.

Statement (3) gives us a reason to learn tango, but the designation ‘tango’ is too broad. Even Argentine Tango is too broad a category because there are ways of dancing tango that are not necessarily sophisticated unless we loosen the definition of the word  to basically coincide with any tango, ie., if it’s tango then by definition it’s sophisticated. But making it a conceptual truth that tango is sophisticated means that we have no way of deciding what is real or authentic tango, ie., someone can sell you anything as tango and therefore as sophisticated without an independent understanding of what sophistication is, and so without any way of judging what an authentic tango is.

Statement (4) uses tradition as a measure of validity and correctness. Again, the question is (i) Why should we follow the tradition? and (ii) How do we define the tradition anyway? Different people will have a different definition of what constitutes traditional tango. Again, even if we can define it, that becomes a mere exercise in anthropology unless we can show why the traditional way of doing things is preferable.

Acculturation vs. enculturation

The problem with the notions of tradition and culture arise mainly due to the perspective taken, namely, the perspective of the target culture, that is, those who are the professed members of the cultural group. They have knowledge and experience comprehensible to themselves which they cannot explain to the foreigner who lacks the knowledge and experience or more likely, does not really find them interesting, so that it’s really a closed circle: the cultural knowledge is of interest only to those who already have it, or else to those who for some independent reason have an interest in gaining this knowledge. Moreover, when an individual chooses to learn Argentine tango, they have not thereby chosen to assimilate to Argentinian culture. They have chosen merely to learn to dance.

For these reasons, it is better to view the matter from the perspective of the learner, because it is their prior interests that determine what aspects of the target culture (in this case Argentinian culture) are of interest and therefore how to define that culture in a way that is relevant. Here it is useful to think in terms of acculturation and enculturation. The topic has been researched in relation to second language acquisition by Schumann (1978), but it seems to apply beyond language learning to other aspects of cultural acquisition. Acculturation is defined as assimilating or adapting to a foreign culture. There are a number of factors that determine the success or failure of acculturation which can be divided into ‘social’ and ‘psychological’.

Social factors are those related to the learner’s group vs. the target culture group that promote or inhibit contact between the two groups. These factors include the following:

1. Dominance and subordination: the greater the difference of status or power between the groups the greater the resistance to acculturation.

2. Integration strategy:
Assimilation: the learner group takes on the lifestyle and values of the target culture group;
Preservation: the learner group maintains its own lifestyle and values and rejects those of the target group;
Adaptation: the learner group takes on the values and lifestyle of the target group but maintains its own lifestyle and values for intragroup use;

3. Cohesiveness and size: if the learner group is large and/or cohesive this will reduce contact with the target culture group;

4. Congruence or similarity: How similar or different are the learner culture and the target culture;

5. Attitude: Do the two groups have positive or negative attitudes to each other?

According to Schumann, the mix of these factors will determine motivation to learn a language. The way in which one learns a cultural practice like the Argentine tango will similarly be affected by these sorts of factors if the process involved is acculturation.


Schumann says that the acculturation model accounts for certain types of language acquisition but there are instances of second language acquisition which it cannot account for:

This model accounts for second-language acquisition under conditions of immigration or an extended sojourn in the TL area. Thus, it accounts for SLA by American Peace Corps volunteers overseas and immigrants to the United States. It will account for the acquisition of French and/or Arabic by sojourners in Tunisia, but will not account for the acquisition of French by Tunisians. It will account for the acquisition of Hebrew by immigrants to Israel, but it will not account for the acquisition of English by Israelis in Israel. It accounts for the acquisition of Swedish by a German sojourner in Sweden and the acquisition of German by a Swedish sojourner in Germany, but it does not account for the SLA by elite Europeans acquiring English in their respective countries.

In each of the cases mentioned above where the acculturation model does not apply, another process may be at work. Tunisians acquire French as part of becoming educated Tunisians. Israelis living in Israel acquire English to be marked as members of an elite class of Israeli professionals who are capable of communicating with English-speaking professionals outside of Israel. The same motivation exists for European elite professionals who acquire English in their own countries. The process which may account for SLA in these cases and which contrasts with acculturation might be designated as enculturation—the process by which an individual assimilated to his own culture or to some segment of it. (Schumann pp. 47-48)

Notice that in this we have a parallel between the two notions of culture as either (i) the lifestyle and values of a linguistic group; or (ii) the marker of education or elite status. In acculturation, one either acquires, fails to acquire, or resists acquiring the values and lifestyle of a group of people. In enculturation, on the other hand, learning a language is a matter of acquiring the foreign language as an aspect of one’s own culture. In that case, learning a given language is a marker of education or cultivation. Notice here that Schumann does not identify learning a language with acculturation, ie., with the adoption of the values and lifestyle of the target language group. The French or English spoken by the elites will be a particular sort of language, eg., it will be designated as ‘Business English’.


A third factor in the acquisition of a foreign culture or language is instruction. However, Schumann argues that only highly immersive instructional programs such as those conducted by the CIA are capable of inducing acquisition. Therefore, acculturation and enculturation are the main causal factors in the majority of situations. In other words, the attitude to the target culture is far more important than the form of instruction. However, this may be more true for acculturation then enculturation. In the case of the latter, it is typical that the target language is acquired in schooling. Learning the target language or culture is like learning any other school subject.


Discussion about what is real or authentic tango culture inevitably ends up being vague and confusing because from the point of view of the learner it is not at all obvious how to define the cultural group (who is part of the group and who is not), and the reasons why this or that group should be emulated. We need to look at the matter from the point of view of the learner and the psychological processes that have been identified as bringing about acquisition, namely, acculturation and enculturation.

In the case of acculturation learners adopt the strategy of either assimilating, adapting or resisting the foreign culture (values and lifestyle); and their interaction will depend on the size and cohesion of their group; the congruence or similarity to the target cultural group; and their attitude.

In the case of enculturation, learners view the target culture as really a part of their own culture, whereby acquiring the foreign culture is a marker of a high level of education or membership of a cultural elite in one’s own culture, ie., being a sophisticated or educated person. In this case, there will be an implicit judgement that there is a proper way of speaking or dancing that appeals to the tastes of the cultural elite.


Schumann, J.H. (1978) “The Acculturation Model of Second-Language Acquisition.”