The Importance of Culture in Language Learning

I recently heard someone who studies multiple languages say that he didn’t care about learning the culture behind those languages. This is really surprising to me on many levels since not only is culture a major and inseparable component of “knowing” a language, it is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of acquiring a new language and keeping yourself motivated. If you argue that a language can learned devoid of culture for mere functional or academic purposes, then what you will end up with is the mere ability to function in the language as an outsider at the minimal level and have no real appreciation for the people who use the language. Choosing not to learn about the country or countries where a particular language is spoken nor its government, history or people not only robs you of the richness that knowing another language normally brings with it, but also makes it very difficult to appreciate the news or place current events in any meaningful context.

However, trying to avoid the culture of a language is actually rather hard to do if you study a language to a thorough level and interact with its speakers. For example, you simply cannot learn to speak and function in Arabic if you are not familiar with its underlying culture or Islamic influence. Speaking Japanese without understanding its rather complicated honorific speech system would be socially disastrous and detrimental to any business negotiation. Each language carries with it all of the history and culture of the area that it arises from. The political, social and economic conditions of the country influence its vocabulary and the shades of meaning of its words. The cultural landscape of some languages is quite vast since they are spoken across many different countries, each flavoring the language in its own unique way. Spanish, as an example, is the official language of 20 countries and widely spoken in the U.S. with variations that reflect each region’s reality. In Mexico, many words for food that Americans are familiar with have different meanings than elsewhere in the Latin world. A tortilla, for example, is a thin layer of corn or flour unleavened bread in Mexico, whereas in other Spanish-speaking countries it is an omelet. Every American knows what a taco is, but the word has a myriad of meanings outside of Mexico that have nothing to do with food. In cases like this where a language is spoken in different counties, it’s more practical to learn the most about the culture and people of the country that you will actually interact with.

Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language. They reflect the accumulated wisdom of past generations, but they are also great for your language skills. I still remember very clearly one that I learned while I was a student in the former Soviet Union, “В Тулу со своим самоваром не ездят!,” which literally means you don’t bring a samovar to Tula. This expression certainly means very little to most people who don’t know anything about Russian culture. What is a samovar? Where in the world is Tula? Well, a samovar (pictured above) is a traditional Russian urn used for boiling water to make tea, both of which are items inextricably linked to Russian culture. Tula is a city in Russia famous for being a major manufacturer of samovars; hence, there would be no need to take one with you if you go there for a visit. If you invest the time in learning many such proverbs, you will be well rewarded by what you gain not only from cultural insight, but in how your language is appreciated by native speakers.

Learning a language without the cultural framework in which it exists is like cooking ethnic food without the spices of the region. You simply will remove all of the flavor from the language. If you are lucky enough to be able to travel or live in the country for awhile, great! If not, try to learn as much as you can by reading books and magazines from the country and watching its television programs so that you can get a feel for how the people think, act and speak. Don’t just be bilingual, be bicultural!

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Is Spanish the best language to learn?

I get asked this question rather frequently. The answer is not always a simple one. With thousands of languages in the world, there is no single language which is the best for everyone. Your geography and job goals play a larger part in choosing a language than most other factors. My views here are particular to readers in the Unites States, though they could be applied in many places in the world. Let’s look at some facts. Spanish is the official language in 21 counties by about 329 million native speakers worldwide, just slightly ahead of English. It is the second most spoken language in the U.S. and the world. For several decades Spanish has been the most studied language of students both young and old. In many cases, this was because it had been perceived to be both easier and more practical than the other languages commonly taught in school, such as French, German or Latin. According to the 2010 census, there are now over 50 million Latinos in the United States, just over 16%. All of these above facts together certainly mean that you can’t go wrong with Spanish. In fact, it is certainly the most useful second language nearly anywhere you go in the U.S. This linguistic trend will continue well into the foreseeable future, so for most learners of any age, I would feel comfortable recommending Spanish.

There is, however, a new trend developing in high schools and colleges to offer less-taught languages, such as Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The sounds and writing systems of these languages seem exotic, which appeals to many students. Forward-looking parents and students will also see that the developing economies of the countries where these languages are spoken will have many job opportunities available to savvy Americans who learn to master these languages. With 850 million speakers of Mandarin Chinese, it is the fastest-growing language in popularity for students worldwide. Here in the U.S., an estimated 1,600 schools are now teaching Chinese, some starting as early as kindergarten. The government of China is an active promoter of the language and in some cases is even providing free teachers for cash-strapped schools. Arabic is also gaining popularity in American universities. With 280 million native speakers in 26 countries, it’s an important language of business and government. In areas where such language opportunities exist, I believe that it’s a fantastic way to get experience in strategic languages that will give students an academic and career edge later in life.

For adults with a desire to learn a language, any language, the question of what language to learn depends more on what motivates them. If you lose motivation in the language, you won’t continue to study it. Learn French if you want to travel throughout France every year, or Russian if you’re fascinated by Russian history. Whatever language you study, try to learn it as well as you can. The real fun comes from being able to use the language easily and naturally.