Want to Truly Master a Language? Immerse Yourself in the Culture Behind It!

Be prepared: we will show you the difference between learning a new language through mere vocabulary and grammar rules… and mastering it! And the difference lies in immersing yourself in its culture! 

Culture and language are deeply intertwined, each influencing and shaping the other in a complex dance that can both challenge and enrich the language learning experience. 

That’s why folks who learn a new language using just old-school textbooks without any real interaction with native speakers don’t reach fluency.

Let’s explore the pivotal role that culture plays in language learning (have you heard of cultural sensitivity?).

The cultural kaleidoscope of language

When we claim that language is so much more than just a set of communication tools, we mean it’s a living, breathing reflection of a community’s identity. 

The way people express themselves, their values, customs, and traditions are all encoded in their language. When we engage with a new language, we’re not just learning words – we’re diving into a whole new world.

Imagine you’re learning French. As you progress in your studies, you’ll discover that there are different ways to address people based on their age, social status, or the level of familiarity. 

“Tu” and “Vous” aren’t just words; they’re windows into the structure of French society, where respect and formality are embedded in everyday communication. 

Understanding these subtleties is not just a matter of correct language use: it’s about respecting and honoring the cultural norms and values of the people you’re communicating with. It’s an essential part of being a culturally sensitive and competent language learner.

How could one master a language without having an understanding of these nuances?!

The culture-language connection

Have you heard the quote “language is a cultural mirror?“

Yes, it’s the truth. 

In fact, language reflects the beliefs, history, and social structures of a community. Here are some reasons behind this intricate connection:

1. Cultural context shapes language use

Language is a product of its environment. Never on Earth was a language set by law – no decision external to the people can define the language!

The phrases, idioms, and expressions in a language often make sense only when you understand the culture they come from. 

For instance, in English, we have idioms like “raining cats and dogs” or “break a leg.” These expressions might seem strange or even meaningless to non-native speakers, but they make perfect sense to those who grew up in the cultural context where they originated.

Well, “raining cats and dogs” means that it is raining very heavily, with a downpour of large and heavy raindrops. It is a colorful way to describe a particularly intense or torrential rainstorm. And “break a leg” is the same as wishing “good luck” to someone!

This idiom highlights the importance of cultural context in understanding and appreciating language. It’s not just about learning words: it’s about developing cultural sensitivity.

2. Language expresses values and worldview

Different cultures have different values and worldviews, and these are reflected in their languages. For instance, the concept of “Schadenfreude” in German, which refers to the pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune, is a term that captures a specific human emotion.

It reveals the Germans’ recognition and acceptance of this sentiment, while in some other cultures, such an emotion might be frowned upon or denied.

Similarly, the Japanese word “wabi-sabi” embodies a whole philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and transience. Learning about this term is not just about acquiring new vocabulary: it’s about delving into the Japanese way of seeing the world.

3. Language is a tool for connection

Language is not just a means of communication – it’s a bridge between people. When you learn a new language, you’re opening doors to connect with a new set of people, and understanding their culture can significantly enhance this connection.

Let’s consider an example that illustrates the importance of embracing and respecting the cultural aspects of a language:

Imagine you work for an international company, and you’ve been assigned to a project that involves collaborating with a team from a foreign country, let’s say Qatar. Your team includes Qatari colleagues, and your project’s success hinges on effective communication and cooperation.

You understand the significance of respecting cultural nuances when it comes to language and interaction. In this case, you decide to immerse yourself in the Qatari culture, not only by learning the language but also by understanding their customs and traditions.

While you invest time and effort in a language exchange app to learn Arabic, you learn about the cultural intricacies, such as bowing etiquette, gift-giving traditions, and the importance of dressing codes in Qatari culture. You make an effort to incorporate these practices into your interactions.

As a result, your foreign colleagues appreciate your dedication and respect for their way of life, and – guess what! – your project progresses smoothly. 

Please, remember: by embracing and respecting the cultural aspects of a language, you demonstrate empathy and interest in the culture of the people who speak it. That is cultural sensitivity and can lead to more profound and meaningful relationships, whether personal or professional.

The challenges and benefits of embracing culture in language learning

Now that we’ve explored the tight bond between culture and language, let’s dive into the challenges and benefits of embracing culture in your language learning journey.

Let’s begin with the challenges:

1. Overcoming stereotypes

One of the most significant challenges in learning a language’s cultural aspects is overcoming stereotypes and preconceived notions. 

Meet Alex, a college student who is about to start learning Mandarin Chinese. He has heard various stereotypes and misconceptions about Chinese culture, such as assumptions about their food, customs, and work ethic. He’s also been exposed to some negative stereotypes in the media.

Before he begins his Mandarin virtual language classes, he carries these biases and misconceptions about Chinese culture. He is hesitant and somewhat skeptical about immersing themselves in a language with which they associate these preconceived judgments.

However, Alex decides to take a more open-minded approach, by 

  • doing research on Chinese culture
  • reading books
  • watching documentaries
  • talking to people who have firsthand experience with China. 

As Alex progresses in his language learning journey, he engages in cultural exchange activities:

  • attending Chinese cultural events
  • trying traditional Chinese food
  • interacting with native speakers on the Speaky app

After some time, Alex’s attitude has transformed: he’s let go of their biases and misconceptions about Chinese culture and is now more open, accepting, and appreciative:

Often, we carry biases or misconceptions about a culture, which can hinder our ability to truly understand and appreciate it. It’s important to approach language learning with an open mind, free from preconceived judgments.

2. Navigating cultural differences

Every culture has its own set of norms, values, and behaviors. When you immerse yourself in a new language, you may encounter cultural differences that can be puzzling or even uncomfortable. 

And how you feel depends on cultural sensitivity!

We have some cool examples:

Time in Spain: In Spanish-speaking countries, such as Spain, it’s common for people to have a more relaxed attitude toward punctuality. If you’re used to strict time management, adapting to “la hora española” (the Spanish time) may be perplexing.

Dining in India: When learning Hindi and experiencing Indian culture, you might find it unusual to eat with your hands, a common practice in many parts of India. It might feel messy or even uncomfortable if you’re accustomed to using utensils.

Respect in Thailand: Thai culture places great emphasis on respect, and it’s important to address people using their appropriate titles and with a wai (a slight bow with pressed palms). If you’re not familiar with these customs, it can be a bit confusing when learning the Thai language and engaging with Thai people.

Eye contact: In some cultures (mostly Asian ones), it’s considered rude to make direct eye contact, while in others, it’s a sign of honesty and respect. These differences can lead to misunderstandings or miscommunications.

3. Balancing cultural authenticity with personal identity

As a language learner, you’ll have to find a balance between adopting the cultural nuances of the language you’re learning and staying true to your own identity. It’s essential to understand and appreciate culture but not at the cost of losing your individuality.

And now, the benefits:

1. Deeper understanding of language

Embracing the cultural elements of a language helps you gain a deeper understanding of the language itself. You’ll be able to interpret idioms, expressions, and nuances more accurately, making your communication more effective.

Let’s imagine you’re learning Spanish and have decided to immerse yourself in the culture of a Spanish-speaking country. You have the opportunity to live in Spain for a few months. During your stay there you are going to live real experiences connected with Spanish:

  • Local festivals and traditions

While in Spain, you actively participate in local festivals and traditions, such as La Tomatina or Semana Santa. This not only exposes you to new vocabulary related to these events but also helps you understand their significance and the emotions they evoke in native speakers.

  • Cuisine

You indulge in Spanish cuisine and not only learn the names of dishes but also the stories behind them.

For example, you discover the historical and cultural importance of paella in Valencia. This understanding deepens your connection to the language as you discuss food with locals.

As you embrace the cultural elements of Spain while learning Spanish, you gain a deeper understanding of the language itself! 

You begin to see how the language is a reflection of the culture’s values, history, and way of life. This not only enhances your language skills but also fosters a profound appreciation for the cultural and linguistic nuances that make Spanish a vibrant and diverse language.

2. Enriched cultural experience

By immersing yourself in the culture of the language you’re learning, you’ll enrich your overall cultural experience. You’ll be better prepared to travel, live, or work in a foreign country, and you’ll have a greater appreciation for its art, music, food, and customs.

Imagine you’re an American student learning French, and you decide to spend a semester studying in Paris. By immersing yourself in French culture, you enrich your experience in the following ways:

  • Local cuisine

You explore the vibrant food markets, savor authentic croissants, and indulge in coq au vin and escargot. Your appreciation for French cuisine goes beyond taste; you understand the history and regional variations of these dishes.

  • Art and history

You visit iconic museums like the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, where you see famous works of art and learn about their cultural significance. Your understanding of French history deepens as you explore historic landmarks like the Palace of Versailles.

  • Cultural events

You attend local events, from Bastille Day celebrations to classical music concerts. Your immersion allows you to appreciate the artistic and musical heritage of France in a way that textbooks cannot convey.

  • Everyday conversations

Engaging with native speakers and conversing with locals helps you understand the nuances of the language. You not only improve your French but also learn how French society values polite greetings and expressions of courtesy.

  • Customs and etiquette

You become well-versed in French customs, from the double-cheek kiss to the art of the café au lait. This cultural knowledge helps you navigate social situations with confidence.

As a result, your time in Paris is not just about language learning; it’s a holistic cultural experience. You’re better prepared to travel, live, or work in France, and you have a deep appreciation for its art, music, food, and customs. Immersing yourself in the culture of the language has transformed your experience into a journey of true cultural enrichment.

3. Enhanced communication skills

Understanding and respecting cultural norms and values mean cultural sensitivity, and will make you a more effective and respectful communicator.  And in today’s world, good communication skills are super important, especially at work. 

So…

There you have it! Master a new language with Speaky – that means to dive into a new culture!

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