Why Learning a New Language Requires You to Learn a New Culture

August 1, 2013

I remember sitting in my advanced bilingual education class during my undergraduate work at Western Illinois University, and hearing the professor say, “You cannot separate language and culture.” I didn’t fully appreciate the impact of those words until later in my career. 

A few years down the road, when I was living and teaching in Bogota, Colombia as part of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program, a fellow teacher told me how there was a new Sushi restaurant, and it advertised, “All you can eat.” And it advertised this in English. We English teachers all found this fascinating. There wasn’t really a Spanish phrase that conveyed what “All you can eat” truly meant. Sure, it could have been literally translated, but the meaning would have been lost because overindulging yourself into a gluttonous state at a restaurant is an inherently American behavior. This was the first time we had seen something like this in Bogota. The language was attached to the American culture being advertised.

Another example of the cultural-lingual connection occurred when I was a 17 year old studying abroad though a short term Rotary Exchange program in Argentina. There was this thing we did that I hadn’t done before – “tomar mate.” Literally, it means “drink mate”, which is kind of like a loose leaf herbal tea. But that translation doesn’t say what it really was. It was an experience involving about 5 or 6 friends sitting around talking, and passing around one device (it was like little jar with a metal straw that filtered the water through the herbs) and we’d all take turns passing and sipping from this same device. This was such an inherently Argentinian cultural experience…the only way I can use a succinct phrase to describe it is “tomar mate.”

These examples illustrate how important it is that we teachers find opportunities to teach second languages through cultural experiences. While traveling to the target language country will always be the ideal cultural experience, we can provide mini experiences in our classrooms a through food, music, video clips, and games. If you are self-teaching a second language, I’m a big proponent of watching documentaries before you take your trip abroad – the visual depiction and explanation of the culture will give you some context to what you’ll be experiencing. And parents, if you can send or take your child to experience the cultural phenomenons of a new land – do it as early as you can.

Language and cultural cannot be separated; If we give ourselves and our kids the opportunity to experience one, we will inevitably get the other.