There’s a reason why people say that immersion into a language is the best way to learn it. One reason why it is so effective is due to the fact that a need is created; the language learner is simultaneously forced to hear and speak the language 24/7. But there is another, more impactful influence that unquestionably impresses the learner during their language learning journey. Culture. In this post, Lindsay McMahon, of English and Cultural Tutoring Services, based in Boston, MA, shares her expertise in the field of teaching the importance of learning the culture of the people whose language you are learning to speak in order to better understand the language itself.
by Lindsay McMahon
When we learn a new language or interact with people from a different culture, it is natural to want to find the ways in which we are the same. We like to focus on commonalities. Ironically, this can hold us back from real communication and connection with others. When we minimize cultural differences, we operate under the incorrect assumption that we are all motivated by the same things and communicate in the same way. We might recognize different customs, food or traditions or even differences in nonverbal communication but we mistakenly believe that the differences don’t go any deeper than that. In today’s post, I will tell you why this assumption is holding you back in your language learning journey and why you should explore cultural differences on a deeper level.
1) Remember that grammar starts with culture: Have you ever made the mistake of trying to translate a sentence directly from your language into your target language? How did it work? Were you understood? When you did this, you forgot one fundamental aspect of language and that piece is culture!
While I was living in Japan and learning Japanese, I incorrectly started many of my sentences with “Watashi wa” meaning “I am”. Why did I do this? I did this because in my individualistic American culture, “I” or another subject such as “You” is usually the focus of a sentence. In contrast, in the group-oriented culture of Japan, the individual is often de-emphasized in the sentence. The language naturally flows from the culture. I didn’t realize this and I continued to speak Japanese from an American cultural lens.
However, despite my constant mistakes, I got better. I continued to plug away at learning new vocabulary words while getting to know the ways that Japanese people view the world. Only at that point could I piece together sentences that really worked. I gradually learned to communicate in ways that not only made sense with the correct vocabulary but that also accurately communicated my message from their worldview, not my worldview. This was a turning point and it wouldn’t have happened without an understanding of cultural differences.
2) Gain marketable skills beyond language: Are you planning on adding your second or third language to your resume and perhaps working abroad? If you are, that’s fantastic. Language skills are in high demand in the professional world today. But if you want to use that new language in the workplace, the grammar and vocabulary will only get you halfway there. A recent study by the Telegraph said that one fifth of international executive positions don’t work out as professionals end up returning home early. Why? Sometimes it is because of logistical issues like the hassles of everyday life, but that’s not the whole story. There is something deeper and more significant that causes these executives to pack up early. Think about it. It is easy to fool yourself into believing that you are “fluent” in a culture if you are “fluent” in a language isn’t it? However, the things that really trip people up when they live and work abroad are the subtle, nuanced cultural differences in negotiation styles, approaches to problem solving and resolving conflict, uses of time and attitudes toward hierarchy that can be found in an intercultural workplace. This is where both perfect grammar and an advanced vocabulary in the target language just aren’t sufficient for professional or personal success.
3) Build genuine connections: To me, language learning is about connecting with people. Sadly, we often miss this opportunity and we trade it in for connecting with the present perfect tense and prepositions. While we are busy with our noses in our grammar books, conjugating verb forms, we fail to learn about what really makes people in the new culture tick and how they view the world. If we maintain the idea that we need to learn the language, but on a fundamental level, we are “all the same”, we end up feeling confused and lost when we finally try to put those language skills into action.
Want an example?
Last week I spoke with Juan, an international professional here in Boston who is from Latin America. I asked him how his new job was going and he said that his coworkers were kind of “cold”. I asked why he thought they were cold and he said, “They never ask what I’m doing on the weekends. It’s incredible.” What he might not have considered is the fact that in this individualistic (Northeastern, urban, U.S.) culture, a core value is privacy. While the Bostonians in his office might value their own privacy immensely, they probably assume that he does as well. They were respecting his privacy by not asking about every last detail of his weekend.
Interestingly, I had a similar experience in Juan’s native country. While backpacking through Colombia in 2007, I was welcomed to stay with families in their homes all over the country. This was not a homestay program. I met locals everywhere I went and every family connected me with a new family from Medellin, to Santa Marta, to Taganga, to Bogota. This was a level of hospitality I had never seen before. Being taken care of was great most of the time. However, at other times, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I needed some privacy. While Juan labeled his American colleagues as “cold” and I labeled my Colombian hosts as “suffocating”, what we both missed is the fact that we operate from a different cultural lens.
We can exchange words and sentences in a second language without a problem but there will always be a barrier between speakers until we understand cultural norms and values.
Once we recognize different cultural values, we can make space for the grammar and vocabulary to become tools for connecting while allowing the deeper understanding of the differences to serve as the foundation. Without this foundation of cultural awareness and knowledge, our efforts to connect will go no further than a phrase book and empty sentences.
When you set a goal to learn a language, you are doing something so much bigger and so much greater than just learning to use new words. You are learning a new way of connecting with people. But people are complicated. A well-intentioned language learner might like to assume that “we are all the same”. That learner will hit a limit. He will understand words but will never really communicate. I would like to challenge you to explore the ways in which that simple fact turns language learning on its head. Be a smarter language learner. Put down your grammar book and start with culture.
Lindsay McMahon is a cross-cultural trainer with English and Culture, based in Boston. To get more information about culture and language learning, you can visit her blog English and Culture: Notes on Life and Language in the United States.