How Important is Culture When Learning a Language?

“Negotiate a river by following its bends, enter a country by following its customs.” Cambodian Proverb

While learning a new language, it doesn’t take long for cultural differences to pop up. Sometimes they give a pleasant jolt to your ordinary perspective. Sometimes they baffle. But how important is it to learn the culture that goes with the language you’re studying? Is it even necessary?

Culture and language are inseparable. They go hand in hand. The geography and landscape, the flavors of the kitchen, and descriptions of flora and fauna all bring a sense of place to every language.

And learning about a foreign culture is one of the more enjoyable aspects of language learning. It takes you out of your mental comfort zone and opens your mind to new ways of experiencing life.

Nevertheless, some language learners resist embracing the culture behind the language they’re learning. To try to learn a language without understanding the culture takes some deliberate effort. And in the end, you would only gain a robotic ability to parrot the words and grammar--but that’s not the same thing as truly speaking the language.

Learning the culture along with the language is almost unavoidable. For example, discovering that South Koreans address strangers from the older generation as Ajuma (Auntie) and Ajosshi (Uncle) says volumes about Confucian society, respect for elders, Korea’s sense of community, and the familial authority Koreans have over those younger than themselves.

Proverbs and Idioms

Nowhere does culture shine through more than in a language’s proverbs and idioms. These morsels of wit, wisdom and old wive’s tales give us a glimpse into the values that help shape the language.

Take for example this Cambodian proverb: “The immature rice stalk stands erect, while the mature stalk, heavy with grain, bends over.”

One encounter with an elderly Khmer farmer, permanently bent forward 90 degrees from the waist after decades of working the rice fields, and you’ll understand the sense of honor and respect behind this proverb.

It almost goes without saying that if you’re coming from a wheat-based European or colonial culture, the importance of rice is an important distinction, too. For southeast Asian cultures, rice is the foundation of life and the basis of the whole kitchen.

For another sampling of cultural nuances, compare Argentina’s buena onda (‘good waves’) to Costa Rica’s own pura vida (‘pure life’). Both are catchall colloquialisms to denote positive feelings.

Buena onda is comparable to the English ‘good vibes,’ and also nods to a country with a considerable length of coastline. Pura vida conjures images of jungle sprouting from every available surface, just like the terrain of Costa Rica. It even reflects the political and personal environmental stance that animals should be free to live their lives, as well as the valuation of life over work or business.

Food and Flavor

Food is culture made manifest. As you learn the language of food, the culture of that language comes into focus. You might start learning names for fruits that you never knew existed. Or you might find out that a familiar English word, like ‘quinoa,’ is actually a loanword (‘quinoa’ comes from Spanish, but Spanish borrowed it from the Quechua language of the Incan people).

As with cooking, there’s a certain style, spice, or flavor that makes a language truly local. As a Latin American friend once said, “rice and beans is not the same as rice-and-beans.” Just putting the two components together, in language or in the kitchen, does not make it Latin American.

To speak like a local, you must taste the flavors, smell the smells, understand the values, and walk the land. So as you’re taking up your new language, whatever it is, get ready to embrace a whole new way of looking at life. Dive into the culture behind the language, and you’ll have a faster, more enriching learning experience!


About the Author:

Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online translation and legal interpreting services provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications.