Is Knowledge about Culture Really Necessary When Learning a Foreign Language?

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The answer to this question is always going to be a big, fat YES. Whoever says or insists that culture is not an important and crucial factor when learning a foreign language, is completely and utterly wrong. First, trying to separate the two is going to be rather difficult, since they are linked in so many ways that is practically impossible to learn a language without taking into consideration the traditions, common sayings, proverbs, ways to address a person correctly and the cultural influence behind it. Second, learning about the country, its history, traditions, government and geography allows you to enrich the learning process and have a more meaningful context when speaking this newly acquired language. We could list a million reasons culture is connected to the language and we are probably going to do so in this article.

Each language carries with it all the history and culture of the area that it originated in. The political, social and economic conditions of the country will always influence its vocabulary and the different meanings of its words. For example, Spanish, being the official language in more than 20 countries, has such a rich vocabulary that most of its words have different meanings depending on the region where you are. Let us take, as an example, the word “apretar.” In Chile, the verb means to make someone keep their obligation; in Argentina and Uruguay, it means to kiss passionately; in Venezuela, it means to tighten –a screw, for example-; and in Mexico, used as an adjective, it means to have more money than others. You can call a thong “zunga” in many South American countries, but in Colombia, you would be calling someone a prostitute. In Japan, if you are not familiar with their –complicated- honorific speech, you could easily screw up a business negotiation. Starting to understand the importance of culture when learning a new language, are we?

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has concluded that through the study of other languages, students gain knowledge and understanding of the cultures that use that language. The fact that teachers are being conscious about having their students learn both the language and the culture behind it is just another piece of evidence that supports the big, fat yes we used to answer the main question in this article. A student will never truly master a foreign language unless they also master the cultural context that it implies.

How can foreign language learners acquire this magnificent knowledge? Well, the best way to both learn a new language and its culture is to go to the country per se, but we all know not everybody can afford to do that. However, this would be the ideal scenario. Going to London, Australia or the US to learn English; learning Mandarin in Hong Kong; Spanish in Mexico, Buenos Aires or Madrid; Japanese in Tokyo; and Italian in beautiful Tuscany. Another option is to try finding a native speaker to teach you. He or she will probably have a good insight on what the cultural context is like in their country of origin. You can also try doing your own research or even finding friends who speak the language online, this way, you can also practice –free of charge- whenever you like! The Internet is a wonderful multicultural and multilingual world; do not hesitate to give it a shot.

Vanessa Fardi / NEUVOO
Online Content Editor