Anthropologists define culture as “a complex whole that includes knowledge, ideas, art, law, morals, customs, and any potential habits acquired by man as a member of a particular culture.” These are all aspects that differ from one place to another and have a strong influence on the language locally spoken. That is why it is important to discover also the culture of people who speak your target language. In the end, getting familiar with both the language and the culture will help you become more fluent.
Be it English, Italian, Thai, or Arabic – all languages are connected to a certain set of behavioural norms and discovering those norms will give you a much deeper appreciation of both the language and culture. But it is far from the only reason why learning the culture behind your target language is a good idea.
Keeping you motivated
Limiting the study of a language just to grammar rules or a list of words can be boring, much like eating something without salt or the right set of spices. Learning the main aspect of a culture can be amazing. A Czech proverb says: “You live a new life for every new language you speak.”
Seeing how people act or think in a different way can give flavour to your study and make you discover a new way of thinking. If you’re looking for a way to keeping yourself motivated through your language learning process, discovering the culture is at the top of the list.
Helping you interact with native speakers
The main reason why people learn a new language is to interact with people. You will not have an effective approach if you don’t know even the most basic aspects of the culture of people whom you are speaking with. Some gestures or subjects of conversation can be considered acceptable in one culture but disrespectful in another.
As an example, holding out your hand with just your forefinger and pinky raised to make “horns” (or the “I love you” gesture from American Sign Language) can be a friendly gesture in the USA but, in Italy, it will be considered an offensive one. It means that the person has been betrayed by his mate or you. Alternatively, it can mean that you are casting the Evil Eye on someone or warding against it. While this is just a tiny example, these cultural faux pas are easy to do if you don’t learn the set of norms behind the language.
Helping you understand idiomatic expressions
One of the best ways to sound like a native speaker in your target language is to pepper your speech with idioms and colloquialisms. Mastery of those aspects of a language shows your complete understanding of it. And, coincidentally, learning the culture is fundamental to understand the idiomatic expression of a language.
Idiomatic expressions are sentences whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make them up. Knowing the cultural aspect behind these expressions will help you to remember them.
For example, to understand the expression “like the cacio cheese in maccheroni” you should know a bit of Italian cuisine culture. If you’re familiar with the art of cooking pasta perfectly, you’ll know that this expression means that something is perfectly suitable for a situation like the cheese in a plate of pasta.
How you can get started with learning about the culture
You can get started learning about a specific culture by reading some books or on the web, but the best way to understand the culture of your target language is with a trip! Culture is something you should taste, smell, and experience. None of these aspects can be fully understood just by reading a cultural manual. Especially if you spend some time outside the touristy places you will be able to interact with people, see what they speak about, and how do they act in their daily life. There, you will also have the possibility of using what you learned and seeing the result of your efforts.
If you cannot travel, try to find people who speak the language you are learning in your area or online and ask them about their culture. Usually, people are happy to speak about their native culture and will gladly help you discover it.
Conclusion – Culture is the best reason to learn a language
If you are learning a new language, spend some time learning the culture of the people who speak that language. Read about it, travel, and interact with people. This will increase your eagerness to learn and give you a meaningful experience. After all, there’s nothing more motivating than the prospect of discovering something new and exciting thanks to your new language abilities.
This article was written by Davide M – one of our Italian teachers in Istanbul. Davide has previously also written about using loan words to learn a language and some aspects of Italian foreigners might find challenging. You can sign up for lessons with him below: