November 21, 2017 |
Learning a language goes beyond memorizing words and basic grammar rules. Just because you know how to say ‘lemon’ and ‘glass’ in French, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to order lemonade in a coffee shop in Paris. In fact, you may be surprised by what you get instead!
There’s more to building a conversation with a native than you read in a dictionary. That’s why you can’t try learning a language outside of its cultural environment.
Understanding culture is like having a context that allows you to give the right meaning to each new word you learn. The more you know about the sociocultural background, the easier it is to get involved and learn new words, expressions and ways of speaking.
Culture is essential to learning a language well enough to communicate with natives. In fact, most universities and even high schools invest in exchange programs to allow students to learn languages in the right environments.
When studying languages, you need motivation to progress with verbs, tenses, the use of adverbs, phrasal verbs, and so on. Add to that hundreds of new words, maybe even new letters, and you’ll find yourself ready to quit after the first three lessons!
When you can place all this new information in a cultural context, it can help you engage at a different level with the foreign language. Learning about how native people live and talk introduces a human side to the language, which keeps you hooked on the learning process.
To understand culture, you need to go further than textbooks and dictionaries. You can use a wide range of alternative resources to get relevant information about the locals:
Movies – Spanish speaking students who watched English movies improved their listening and speaking skills faster than their colleagues. Watching subtitled movies or TV programs instead of dubbed ones can give you an accurate image about how native people speak. You’ll get to notice particular expressions, accents and tones of voice that will help you understand more about the cultural environment of the language you’re studying.
Newspapers and magazines – There’s a significant difference between what you learn at school and what you find in magazines. This happens because columns stay in line with how people actually speak to each other in everyday life. They respect all grammar rules, but keep a natural voice at the same time.
Blogs – They have the advantage of connecting you with the local vocabulary. Depending on the niche, you can even improve terminology and learn some items you’ll only find in the ‘urban’ dictionary.
Original literature – Reading original versions of novels is both a reason and a method for learning a language. You get to see how the author has built phrases and what new meaning he or she gives to various words.
Traveling – It remains the most important resource when looking to improve your language skills. You’ll not only listen to how natives speak, but you’ll get to communicate with them as well. Traveling is the most efficient way of learning a language because it gives you less alternatives. You either learn to say it right, or you risk to creating chaos and potentially embarrassing situations!
Let’s start with English. Even if most foreigners learn a standard version of the language, they still study English culture, to learn how to give words the right meaning.
Outside the cultural context, it would be difficult for foreigners to understand the meaning behind phrases like “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “fly by the seats of your pants.” Similar examples are easy to find in any language.
Let’s take it one step further. Just think about the various cultures behind the English language alone. Understanding English-speaking cultures allows foreigners to communicate differently, depending on the country they visit or do business with.
Words like ‘pants’, ‘biscuits’, ‘trainers’ or ‘football’ have different meanings in the US and the UK. It’s sometimes hard for English speakers to adapt to these differences. Imagine how hard it would be for foreigners, outside a cultural context!
Spanish is another language with many different versions. So, when you’re looking to study it, make sure you pay attention to cultural differences.
Latin Americans speak differently from one country to another, and from Spain. ‘Boludo’, for example, means stupid in Argentina and brave in Mexico. While ‘fresa’ is the word for strawberry in Spain, but it describes a snob in Mexico.
The same happens with French, Italian, Arabic, Chinese and any other language. Because languages are dynamic and continuously changing, people tend to give new meanings to words, depending on their level of education or on the region they live in.
Understanding culture allows foreigners to use the right word, depending on the context. This way, there’s less room for misunderstandings and confusion.
We are cultural learners from an early age. Our native language influences the way we receive new information. And, when we grow, cultural references are essential for learning a language.
Learning a language without understanding the culture behind it is tasteless. It’s like cooking fried chicken without the right spices! You get to know something about the recipe, but you’ll never experience the real flavor.
You can’t learn Chinese just because you want to do business in China. You must find the deeper reasons behind the language: how the Chinese act, how they live, what they eat, what their beliefs and traditions are. All these details will give you a new perspective on the language and allow you to learn faster.
When you know more about the people you’re talking to, you have a greater chance of saying the right words at the right time. You won’t have to create the phrases in your native language and then translate them in the new language.
Understanding culture allows you to give the right meaning to each word, in the larger context, because you’ll be able to think in the foreign language.
There are concepts you can express in English, but you couldn’t say in any other language with a word-to-word translation. By understanding cultural differences while learning a language, you’ll find new ways to express these things.
Culture is essential when studying languages. Because understanding cultural background–art, literature, lifestyle– helps you reach language proficiency and really live the language while you learn. Otherwise, you may as well just stick to a garbled machine translation and staring at people in books.