What does learning a language involve? Some people might say you need to start with vocabulary. Others believe you should get comfortable with speaking as soon as possible. But when do you start studying words in different contexts or learning about the culture behind your target language?
Do you do those things at all?
Is learning a language more than vocabulary?
Think again about what learning a foreign language involves. Certainly, you need to learn vocabulary and you need to understand how to put a sentence together. But is language really just a kind of formula, like a math equation?
Vocabulary + Good Grammar = Meaning
Any language learner will tell you it’s not that simple. If you want to be able to communicate in another language, you’ll need to know about the culture of the people who speak the language and you’ll need to use and understand the ways in which context creates meaning.
Are culture and context important?
What are they exactly? You probably already have a good idea, but do you know how they relate to language learning?
You may have learned about various cultural traditions, places, or events related to the language you’re learning. Though, if your experience is anything like my high school French class, it may have simply felt like another any other history lesson or some story about what people do in another country.
In other words, you probably learned about culture as a series of facts that didn’t relate to you or the way you learned a language.
But culture is more than just facts, events, and historical landmarks. Culture is present in the way events have influenced expressions and the things locals might consider rude. It changes the way a language is used in everyday speech.
Similarly, the context surrounding your language lessons contributes to how well you learn. Everything from your teacher to your study methods to your motivations is part of that context.
Using context as part of your study methods is also helpful for tasks like learning new vocabulary. However, this kind of learning isn’t always made a priority.
Do you need culture?
Do you really need to learn the culture behind your target language?
Of course not. Unless, of course, you want to actually communicate in a more meaningful way. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself reciting words and phrases, perhaps with impeccable grammar, but without any idea as to why you still feel out of place.
For instance, it might not take you too long to learn how to introduce yourself or ask for directions. However, if you try to use “vosotros” in Mexico or fail to say “bonjour” to a French person, don’t be surprised if people immediately assume you don’t speak the language well or even find you rude.
It’s these small details that make culture such a fundamental piece of a language. In many instances, it’s essential for meaning.
What you can learn from culture?
Your own culture shapes your point of view. It helps you determine how to address others, when certain kinds of language aren’t appropriate, and how to navigate all kinds of social situations.
An easy example is comparing the language you use with your boss at work with the language you use with family members or friends. Would you present an idea or write a work e-mail the same way you might suggest something to a friend or write a text message?
Culture offers clues on how to approach and respond to these situations. When you learn a language, you owe it to yourself to learn the culture of its native speakers. Otherwise, you’ll have a hard time understanding and communicating with others.
Taking the time to not only learn culture, but understand how it differs from your own, can help you relate to your target language on a deeper level. Instead of memorizing details about events and landmarks, aim to comprehend culture as a social practice or framework.
Start engaging with the culture of your target language by:
Talking to native speakers and asking questions
- Watching films
- Listening to music
- Reading news and current events (including pop culture!)
Do you need context?
If culture helps you understand the nuances of meaning, context gives you the tools to remember them all. When you have meaningful context in relation to your language learning efforts, you’re more likely to remember what you’re learning.
But what does meaningful context consist of?
When you think of context and language learning, you probably think of learning new words by using phrases, full sentences, a song, or even a story. In this way, it becomes a tool to help you learn more effectively.
However, context operates in a larger sense as well. Like culture, it allows us to put language together like a puzzle to create meaning. It includes:
- Events surrounding a conversation
- Guidance from a language teacher or tutor
- Your own cultural background
- Your assumptions about someone else’s cultural background
As language learners, we need to learn how to engage with context and use it to connect with what we already know.
How to learn with context
Even in your native language, it’s easy to see how the same sentence can mean something completely different depending on context. For instance, look at the phrase “Good job!” in these two situations:
“How was the contest?”
“I got first place!”
“What happened to your car?”
“I backed into the mailbox.”
“Wow. Good job.”
In the second scenario, “Good job” is used sarcastically, but you wouldn’t know that without the context of the previous sentences.
When you learn another language, understanding the way context can alter meaning gives you more insight into the way words are naturally used.
If you want to start incorporating context into your language studies:
- Find different examples of words being used in sentences, phrases, and dialogues
- Compare similar words, phrases, and idioms in your native language
- Ask teachers and tutors about different ways to use new vocabulary
- Ask for clarification when native speakers and language exchange partners use familiar words in an unfamiliar way
Why you need both culture and context
If you tried to learn a language, but ignored the culture behind it or the context different words can take, you’d certainly be missing something.
Think about a time you’ve felt left out of an inside joke or tried to follow a conversation about an event or a piece of gossip that you knew nothing about. You probably felt like you couldn’t contribute anything meaningful. You may have even said something completely out of place, making everyone realise that you didn’t understand.
Ignoring culture or the possible implications of the words you use makes it difficult for you to communicate and relate to others.
Why should that be any different with another language and culture outside of your own?
Start by being aware
You can’t know or learn everything, even if you wanted to. Therefore, the best strategy for language learners to take is to learn awareness, including awareness of how you’re learning.
So, how do you start becoming aware?
Be conscious of how often you learn and where that learning takes place
For instance, it’s great to take advantage of lessons with a teacher or tutor, talk with a language exchange partner, or participate in an online language class. However, don’t let that be the only time you spend on learning a language.
Remember that culture isn’t static, even among people with the same native language
Challenge yourself to always ask questions, compare cultural habits and traditions, and reflect on your own cultural assumptions and biases.
This could be as simple as thinking about the differences between “chips”, “crisps”, and “fries” in British and American English. It could also be as complex as trying to understand swears and words that could be seen as insults in different cultures.
Keep an open mind
That means being open to different cultural ideas as well as new language learning methods. Just because something isn’t familiar, doesn’t mean it’s wrong or can’t be helpful for you.
Ask questions when you can and be willing to take advice. You never know what you’ll learn!
Most of all, engage in conversations. Not only will you gain valuable speaking practice, but you’ll find more opportunities to learn about culture and understand the way your target language is used in real conversations.