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!

The Price of Misunderstanding

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language has a favorite story about what happened when he or she misunderstood something that was said. These stories can range from humorous to disastrous. Here’s my story.

Back in the mid 90’s I was tutoring a Venezuelan student in English at her home. We had been meeting for many months so we were quite comfortable with each other and frequently spoke in Spanish during study breaks or when I needed to explain English grammar to her. One day I came by for our regular appointment and she greeted me in Spanish stating that her children were home sick today from school and in their bedrooms. She told me that they both had come down with lechina. My look of understanding and lack of concern betrayed what was really going on in my head. My brain quickly tried to make sense of that word, running through lists of diseases, but I actually thought I heard la china and could not think of any illness that corresponded to it. I discarded it as something minor and didn’t give it any more thought until two days later when I began to start scratching at my chest. As the day wore on I began noticing red splotches on my chest and suddenly my mind went racing back to lechina. I began to have a sinking feeling that lechina was actually varicela… chickenpox. I never had chickenpox as a kid so I got panicky and called my student and explained my symptoms to her. She apologized and said that I apparently had contracted lechina from being in her home. She assumed that I must have had it as a kid since I didn’t seem worried about it during our last class. Being an adult with chickenpox was quite awful so this is one lesson that I will never forget—in Venezuela lechina is chickenpox.  When it comes to important things like health, be sure you totally understand what is being said so you don’t end up in a similar situation.

This underscores the regional variations in language, especially Spanish. With over twenty Spanish-speaking countries, not to mention the Spanglish of the United States, such examples abound. Since that incident, I have worked closely with Venezuelans, Columbians, Mexicans, Salvadorians, Puerto Ricans and Cubans I have observed and noted hundreds of other such differences. I’ll write more about this in a different post.

The main point is that when we speak in another language, we are often reluctant to admit that we don’t understand everything that we hear during a conversation, either out of embarrassment or pride. No one wants to keep asking for sentences to be repeated and modified so that we can understand them. In many cases our brains filter out or guess parts of conversation that were not initially understood allowing us to continue the conversation. Language learners quickly learn to pick on clues to know when to make appropriate nods and “uh huhs” during conversations even if they haven’t gotten the entire gist. However when it comes to more serious things, asking for clarification could have saved me from three weeks of chickenpox but then I wouldn’t have the funny story to tell now.