The Role of Culture in Language Learning

To truly learn a language, you must learn its culture; to truly learn a culture, you must learn its language.
A country’s customs, beliefs, geography, traditions, fashion, art all affect, and are affected by language and culture.

“He doesn’t have hairs on the the tongue.”

You might be very confused and slightly disturbed at this point after hearing that with your mind racing through questions like ‘Does he have a medical condition? Does anyone have hairs on their tongue? Am I supposed to?’

In Spanish-speaking countries, the idiom “No tener pelos en la lengua” translated directly into English is “not having hairs on the tongue,” however, it has a very different meaning. It means that a person is blunt, and they speaks their mind without holding back.  Idioms are just one aspect of language which show how culture and language are inseparable. To truly learn a language, you must learn its culture; to truly learn a culture, you must learn its language. A country’s customs, beliefs, geography, traditions, fashion, art all affect, and are affected by language and culture. 

Here are some more examples of the role of culture in language learning:

 

Customs

 

  • In Latino cultures, time is less fixed. If you are late to a party and call the host’s telephone, you might hear the phrase “No tener prisa,” which means “Don’t rush.”

 

  • In Chinese cultures, however, great value is placed on punctuality and showing up late is considered rude. If you arrive ten minutes early to a party, you might be praised with the phrase “ 守时如金 (Shǒushí rú jīn)” which means “as punctual as gold,” comparing punctuality to the preciousness of gold.

 

Non-Verbal Communication

 

  • In France, it is customary for people who are familiar with one another to greet with “La Bise” which is a kiss on the cheek (or both cheeks). It is also common for people to stand closer to one another as this shows engagement in the conversation.
  • In the United States, people greet one another with a handshake, or a hug if they are more familiar. Americans generally value personal space and stand farther in conversation to respect that space. 

 

Superstitions

 

  • Chinese people view the number four as unlucky because it sounds like the word “death” and some buildings will skip the fourth floor. 
  • American people view the number thirteen as unlucky and some buildings will skip the thirteenth floor. 

 

Poetry

 

  • In French poetry, rhymes that are identical in nearly all the syllables (example : train/rain in English) are called “rich” rhymes and they are very sought after, they are seen as clever and hard to come by in an elegant, intelligent way. 
  • In English poetry, those same sort of rhymes are regarded as a lack of taste. English prefers “weaker” rhymes with less identical syllables. 
  • In addition, French melody is monotonous. The stressed syllable is always the same one, it can never move. Therefore, the rhythm of a poem can only come from the number of syllables in French.
  • English, however, has a concept of tonal stress. Some syllables are more stressed and highlighted than others. Unlike many other languages, this stress is not shown in writing, but is understood by the native-speaker. 

 

Small Talk

 

  • In the United States, a common ‘ice breaker’ question people ask when meeting each other is, “what do you do for work?” American culture is pragmatic and progress oriented, so it is a natural inquiry to ask how one ‘progresses’ in work.
  • In France, however, people are less keen to ask about work because the culture typically focuses more on interpersonal relationships, even in the workplace. They would prefer to talk about hobbies, travel, food, and culture, fleeing from the mindset “you are what you work.”

 

Here at Cultural Bytes, our motto is “Learn the Culture. Learn the Language.” A one-on-one Mandarin tutoring session practicing numbers by counting Yuan (Chinese currency). A French Saturday school class building learning a song that French children sing to skip rope. Our Spanish Virtual Language Camp (ViLaCa) making Alfajores (Argentinain cookies) out of playdough. No matter the program, each and every single one of our classes emphasize learning the culture of the target language as native-speaking teachers help students learn the language in a rich and effective manner. What are you waiting for? Sign your child up today!

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