Acculturation is the process of change that occurs when people are exposed to a new culture. It involves adapting to new customs, beliefs, and values of the new culture.
People who have gone through acculturation often retain some aspects of their original culture, while also adopting elements of the new culture. However, if they both take on the traits of the new culture and drop the traits of their old culture, then they have moved on to the stage of assimilation.
Below, I’ll explore some examples of acculturation and relate it to my experience integrating into Canadian culture as a new immigrant.
Examples of Acculturation
1. Learning a new language
When you travel to a new country, you often need to learn their language in order to get along in the society. As you develop skills in the new language, you begin to understand the culture more.
This can be as complex as having to learn an entirely new language (e.g. if you move from the United States to Mexico, you’d need to learn Spanish). However, it can also be as simple as coming to understand the nuances of the new language. For example, when I moved from Australia to Canada, I had to learn that capsicums were called bell peppers. Now, when I go home to Australia, I need to code-switch and start calling them capsicums again!
2. Adopting new customs
Each culture has its own customs and even unique iterations of global customs. For example, while Christmas is a part of global culture, people in Spain celebrate it differently to people in the USA.
When you move from the USA to Spain, you might start following the custom of unwrapping your main gifts on January 6th instead of December 25th.
Similarly, a person from Australian, where tipping is not part of the culture, needs to adopt to the custom of tipping if they move to the USA.
Related Concept in Human Geography: Glocalization
3. Changing dress and appearance
One of the most visible ways that people acculturate is by changing the way they dress and groom themselves.
When you move to a new country, it’s often necessary to adopt the local dress code in order to fit in. For example, if you’re moving from a tropical country to a cold country, you’ll probably have little understanding of the fashions around winter clothing.
When you move, you’ll learn the fashionable dress wear in winter in your new country and adopt it when you buy your winter coats.
4. Adjusting to new foods and cuisine
When you travel to a new country, you’ll often be exposed to new types of food that you’ve never tried before. As you try these foods, you’ll start to understand the culture better.
For example, if you move to Mexico, you may start eating a lot more spicy food. But if you move to the UK, you might find that you’re exposed more to beans and potatoes, which may start to become a staple of your diet.
Related Concept in Human Geography: Cultural Adaptation
Different cultures have different social norms. These might be subtle differences.
For example, the cultural stereotype of Americans is that they’re loud and individualistic. However, in the UK, being individualistic is sometimes frowned upon. When I lived in the UK, I found people were much more respected when they stood in queues, waited in lines, and very politely asked for help.
Now that I live in North America, I notice people are much more assertive about getting attention or trying to push their way to the front of the line.
6. Making friends with people from the new culture
One of the major ways you’ll find yourself acculturating is by befriending people who are natives of the culture to which you move.
Many people, when they first move to a country, will spend time with other expats. This is called chain migration, where people follow their fellow countrymen to new places.
But the more time you spend amongst the host culture, the more you’ll find yourself spending time with friends from the home culture who can teach you the customs and nuances that you should be aware of in order to fit into the new country.
7. Acquiring new cultural knowledge
As an immigrant, you learn new cultural knowledge over time. You might learn about the history, art, and literature of the new culture, for example.
As an immigrant to Canada, I’ve slowly started to learn about Canadian heroes like Terry Fox, a cancer patient who ran across Canada to raise funds for cancer. This took me quite a long time to learn, but now that I know it, I feel more integrated into the Canadian context because I understand the culture more.
8. Participating in new cultural activities and hobbies
Different cultures have different hobbies and activities that are the dominant or popular cultural pastimes.
For example, in the United States, attending college football games is very popular. Where I grew up, this didn’t really happen at all.
When I migrated to Canada, one hobby that I was invited to take up was curling. It was incredibly fun and I felt I had a true Canadian experience by joining a curling team.
9. Embracing the new culture’s beliefs
This one is much deeper and starts to show true integration into a culture. When you start embracing the new culture’s beliefs and seeing them as your own, you really start to become a member of the culture.
An example of this would be if you move to a Muslim country and you start to adopt some of the Islamic beliefs, such as praying five times a day or fasting during Ramadan.
A much more subtle example might be if a person from the liberal coastal cities of America moved to the south and started embracing a more conservative Republican outlook because they were consistently exposed to this outlook by the people around them.
10. Adopting the new culture’s slang
Slang is how we communicate with each other in a more informal way. It can be difficult to understand if you’re not familiar with it, but those who do use the slang feel as if they’ve got a shared code for speaking.
When I moved to Canada, I had to learn a whole new set of slang words in order to fit in. Words like “toque” (a type of beanie) and “double-double” (a coffee with two creams and two sugars) were all words that I had to learn in order to feel like a part of the culture.
When my wife and I travel home to Australia, she thinks it’s hilarious how I speak to my family using the excessive colloquialisms and non-literal sayings that I grew up with – and Australia has many!
11. Following the new culture’s sporting teams
Another way of integrating into a culture is by following that culture’s sporting teams. If you’re not a sports fan, this might not be appealing to you, but for a lot of people, it’s a great way to connect with the culture.
When I moved to Canada, I started following the Blue Jays, Canada’s baseball team. By doing this, I was able to connect with other Canadians who were passionate about these teams and we would talk about the games together. This helped me to feel more connected to the culture.
12. Watching the new culture’s news
Another way of integrating into a culture is by watching the news and entertainment that is popular in that culture. This can help you to understand what is capturing the cultural imagination of your new culture.
For example, in Canada, the news often explores Indigenous issues that I wasn’t exposed to back home. Over time, it taught me about how important reconciliation was in my new country. I also learned that protecting old-growth forests was a cultural flashpoint in my new home.
13. Following the new culture’s political machinations
When you first move to a new country, you might remain more interested in your home country’s politics than your new country’s. That’s because you still have that emotional connection and familiarity with your home.
But as you’re exposed to the new culture, you start to pay more attention to the politics of your new home – it starts to be very important to you!
For example, if you’re interested in American politics, it might be a good idea to watch Fox News or MSNBC to get a better understanding of the political landscape in the United States.
If you’re interested in Canadian politics, it might be a good idea to watch the news on CBC or CTV.
14. Adapting to a new climate or weather conditions
When you move to a new country, you also have to adapt to the new climate or weather conditions. This can be difficult, especially if you’re not used to the weather in your new home.
For example, when I moved to Canada U had to learn how to deal with the cold winters. I had to buy a winter coat, learn how to dress in layers, and buy some warm boots. I also had to learn how to drive in the snow!
Enculturation vs. Acculturation
Both enculturation and acculturation are processes related to understanding a culture. However, there are important contextual factors that differentiate these two concepts.
While enculturation refers to learning the rules, norms, values and expectations of one’s own culture, acculturation refers to getting adjusted to another culture.
Therefore, the question “Which culture?” can be asked to differentiate if a process fits to the concepts of enculturation or acculturation.
Unlike enculturation which starts from the birth, acculturation often happens later in life, when an individual or a community becomes exposed to another culture.
This is why acculturation is often a concept that is used for immigrants. Usually acculturation includes a dimension of compromise or change in one’s own cultural habits (Sayegh & Lasry, 1993).
When you move to a new culture, you’ll likely start experiencing feelings of disorientation, confusion, and homesickness. But as you acculturate, you’ll start to feel more connected to the new culture and you’ll start feeling more connected to it. There are many ways to acculturate, and the 14 examples I’ve given are just a few of them.
Over time, you may even begin to lose the cultural attitudes that you had from your home country – and that’s when you’ve moved beyond acculturation and into the assimilation phase.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.