Language Without Culture is Like…

SeasoningsLearning a new language can be an extremely rich and rewarding experience. It can also be drab, mind-numbing work. What makes the difference? I submit that culture is one of the greatest spices which add flavor to the language learning experience. Here are a few analogies to paint a picture of things.

Language Without Culture is Like…

  1. Eating a burger without the meat (or, for vegetarians, eating a salad without dressing).
  2. Climbing inside a Ferrari, buckling up, putting the key in the ignition, and discovering the engine has been removed.
  3. Taking a Calculus class without knowing Algebra.
  4. Parents who still try to act cool around their teenagers.
  5. Napoleon Dynamite (or, in other words, sitting through a movie and realizing half way through that there is absolutely no plot…Vote for Pedro!).

OK, the Napoleon Dynamite one deserves a video:

…Where was I? Right.

There is just something about learning a foreign culture that makes an enormous difference in the language learning process.  After all, the reason Macaroni and Cheese is more popular than Macaroni and Vinegar is because Mac and Cheese has better flavor. That’s what culture is to language learning. Here’s the key: Learn a language and you learn a tool. Learn a culture and you learn to connect.

Yerba MateI see only two ways to learn a culture. Experience tells me that learning the culture through immersion (or at the very least through natives of your target culture) is the best possible way to go about it. No surprise there. But research brought to my attention another way that is almost as valuable as immersion, which is to learn culture through the mass media. Because languages and cultures are dynamic, the media have an advantage over language programs in that once a language program has been developed it immediately becomes static. The mass media, however, are as dynamic as the language and culture are, reflecting the values and colloquialisms present at the time you learn the language.

There are several options when turning to the mass media for both language and culture learning. The most important thing you can do is make it a part of your regular routine as much as possible. Incorporating language learning in your natural way of life makes it more enjoyable, less burdensome, and generally more effective.

When English Teachers SnapIf you don’t yet have a solid foundation of grammar and basic vocabulary, your options are more limited. You can still find foreign films with subtitles, or websites which can help teach you about your target culture. But overall, the real value of the mass media can be found once that solid foundation has been established. After that, use the television, movies, newspapers, books, the internet, the radio, magazines, music, or anything along those lines you can think of, and your skills in both the language and culture will improve substantially.

For more information on the role of culture in language learning, as well as how to incorporate the mass media in your studies, take a look at the Pocketbook Guide to Learning Languages.

Can you think of another analogy? Have an experience to share? Leave a comment below!


3 thoughts on “Language Without Culture is Like…

  1. Fasulye says:

    Experiencing the culture of a language

    I agree with your statement that language and culture belong together. You can either visit the foreign country or live there or you can have contact with native speakers from a certain country. With some languages you have to choose on which country to focus. For my English I mostly focus on the United Kingdom and on the United States. There are also languages which are spoken natively in only one country.

    I had excellent cultural information written in German in the textbooks which I studied “Einstieg Türkisch” and “Einstieg Dänisch”. Additionally in my present Danish course we focus on Danish culture by reading native materials together. I would not say that the mass media should be the only source of cultural knowledge and you have to be very careful with some biased opinions but they are certainly a relevant and easily accessible source.


  2. Ari says:

    Well, everyone is different. For a lot of people, the culture is important, but I can’t say it is for me. I enjoy learning languages. I’ve never felt like it’s “drab, mind-numbing work”. If it gets boring, I stop.

    There’s such a thing as enjoying the language for itself: the words, the sounds, the expressions, the grammar. I can see myself learning the language of a culture that doesn’t interest me, but I find it hard to study a language that doesn’t interest me, no matter what the culture is like.

    I’m a polyglot because I love languages, not because I love cultures. There are people who are the other way around, of course. To each their own.

    • Ken says:

      You raise some excellent points, and I really appreciate your perspective. What it really boils down to is what motivates you in the end. It sounds like you are one of those rare souls who are genuinely motivated at the core to learn the language itself (which really is an incredible gift). For many, however, the culture of a language provides additional motivating elements to continue the language learning journey.

      I certainly appreciate your perspective and hope to hear from you again!

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