Learning a Language from within a Culture

Learning a Language from within a Culture

*First Published by Union Times*

Recently, I’ve gotten more in touch with my cavewoman side. Pointing, grunting (politely), and playing charades with the woman at the grocery checkout line are all in a day’s work for me. Now, as much as I love party games, trying to act out “Do you accept credit cards???” and “I forgot my PIN,” can get old after awhile… especially for the people behind me in line holding ice cream.

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau

Let me elucidate, I am not a cavewoman. I happen to be an educated writer and traveler, who, despite her love for language, had never managed to learn a second tongue in its entirety. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’m from “The States” where very little emphasis is placed on language and geography. Perhaps it’s because I get distracted by too many languages at once. All I know for sure is that I was in the middle of France trying to channel Marcel Marceau in order to get through the day.

Yet, hope is not lost. Despite feeling like a cave dweller, I have made progress during my time here; I am filling in the blank spaces with each passing moment.

The most important thing that I’ve learned so far is to see this awkward time for what it really is… an opportunity.

I am a child again… Every sign along the road holds interest for me, every magazine lying around is a puzzle waiting to be decoded, every conversation within earshot stirs a new part of my brain. I can literally feel different parts of my head tingle as I encounter new information. One evening I was falling asleep and all the weird sounds I had heard throughout the day kept bouncing around inside my head. I realized that this must be what a toddler experiences every day!

While my situation can be difficult, embarrassing, and tiresome, often I feel lucky that I have the chance to unlock a part of the world that previously alien to me. And once I opened my mind to this new world, it opened up to me as well.

Here are some observations and aides that I find useful on my journey to learn a language from within its culture. Use what you like, leave the rest!

Learning a New Language (Photo: Chris Yang)

1. Very important – LISTEN. As you’re reading this now, I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes and saying, “Well, duh!” And you’d be right. Yet, it is not as easy as it sounds. When you’re surrounded by an unfamiliar language all day, your mind tires very easily. It is also very easy to get distracted in a multi-participant conversation after about ten minutes of not understanding. You might even feel rude for “eavesdropping.” When this happens, remind yourself to KEEP LISTENING! There is always something to learn. There is always a chance that you will latch on to one cognate or another and suddenly the whole topic will unfold like a blossom in your mind. Not only will you feel like a genius once you do figure it out, you will be surprised at how much information your brain is storing along the way. The mind is mysteriously powerful. Do not underestimate its ability and do not waste any opportunities to learn. The more you listen, the faster you learn.

2. Do not waste time! Every aspect of life is saturated with language. Every moment is an opportunity. For anybody who has found themselves in a foreign land trying to shop for groceries or drive it becomes apparent very quickly how much we rely on words and writing for really everything. If you want to pull yourself out of the pit of confusion and helplessness, you have to commit to learning at every moment. You must see yourself for what you are, a capable warrior with a difficult mission. Approach the challenge with hunger and passion!

3. Speak up! This one is probably the most intimidating aspect of language learning across the board. Fears of being misunderstood and laughed at are very common. For me, I feel embarrassed when I see the woman at the boulangerie become annoyed when I speak slowly and assign the wrong gender to a baguette. But she is the one who should be embarrassed! Unless it is an emergency and time is of the essence, it shouldn’t be a problem that I try and learn her language. Most people will appreciate your effort and enjoy helping you find your way. If you never practice the mouth positions, if you never make the sounds, you will always feel like you’re dragging every conversation to a halt. It’s painful now, but get over it as soon as possible or you will never pass this phase.

4. Repeat, repeat, repeat! I once heard a trick that successful people use at dinner parties to remember the names of people they meet. They simply repeat the person’s name back to them as they shake hands. This little trick works for language learning too. Every time you hear a new phrase or word, repeat the sounds under your breath one or two times. Obviously, you cannot do this in all situations, i.e. don’t do this ALL THE TIME or people might feel a little uncomfortable around you. But feel free to try this technique at quiet moments of the day or around people who won’t mind your mutterings. So mutter on!

Handy Dandy Notebook

5. Carry a notebook with you at all times. A well-traveled Parisian woman gave me this advice and it might just be the most useful tip I’ve received. Whether you’re meeting your partner’s grandmother or watching TV in your hotel, you will always come across gaps in your knowledge and phrases that you will want to utilize in future. I have three sections in my notebook. One for phrases (in English) that I find myself needing and will look up later (in French), a second section for expressions that I hear other people use that I think might come in handy, and a third section of new vocabulary that I aim to work into my conversations each day.

6. Read EVERYTHING! Advertisements, road signs, magazines, train departure boards, ingredient labels… every bit of writing you come across is aimed at conveying information in a way that everybody will understand. You can learn a lot about the grammar of a language by reading the back of cereal box. You will also learn a lot about the culture, its humor, and its values. And don’t limit yourself to items lying around the house! Analicia Austin, the creative mind behind the travel blog Coffee and a Suitcase, suggests reading a book you remember from your childhood in the language you are trying to learn to help you sink your teeth into how this new culture uses language to convey the same ideas.

7. Learn to love grammar! Listen, I know grammar is the weird kid on the playground who wants to tell you about how the jungle gym was built while you’re just trying to play on it, but it is the KEY to your linguistic independence. If you don’t want to remain a slave to phrasebooks and pre-packaged expressions, you have to learn the basic grammar of the language you are learning. Once you learn the foundation of the language, your deftness and comprehension will skyrocket. You will be able to form unique sentences of your own with a level of nuance and bearing that reflect your voice rather than the poor souls’ over at Lonely Planet TM.

Chat away! (Photo: Laura Dex)

8. When you revert back to your native language, enunciate! Don’t forget, the people you encounter probably aren’t that familiar with your mother tongue either. So when you’re conversing in your native language, speak clearly at a slower pace. And try to avoid idioms and expressions that translate poorly… E.g., telling your Hungarian pen pal to “break a leg” at her upcoming dance recital or her mom that the goulash she made for dinner last night was “sick” might come off as oddly aggressive.

9. Cross-train… linguistic style! Assess your educational strengths and weaknesses and don’t shy away from the more challenging aspects. While you might feel more comfortable learning vocabulary and ready-to-use phrases, don’t avoid aspects of language learning that you find more difficult, like grammar or listening comprehension. Balance is key to educating yourself in a well-rounded manner. If you focus all your attention on vocabulary, but never study grammar, you’ll know a lot of fancy words but not how to form them into a nice sentence. Not very impressive. The key is to improve, not to impress. So face your weaknesses head on.

Note: There are four main aspects of language learning: Phonology (the study of sounds and how to reproduce them correctly), Pragmatics (the intention behind the words), Semantics (the building blocks we use to create meaning within words), and Syntax (the building of sentences and phrases to create meaning, i.e., grammar.)

10. Not everyone is a teacher! Some people really hate having to explain why their language is the way it is. Perhaps they feel uncomfortable about teaching in general or perhaps they really don’t know the answers to the questions you’re asking. Be sensitive to their reactions. If you see your friend becoming agitated when you probe them for information, you might want to take a quiet step back and find another “assistant” who enjoys educational interaction more.

11. DON’T BURN OUT!! Be conscientious of your energy and focus. Yes, it might be exciting to wake up every morning and chat away hard core with the locals, but if you’re exhausted by mid morning and don’t feel like trying to speak for the rest of the day, you might need to learn to pace yourself. For example, I found myself trying very hard to speak for the first few days I was in France, but by the end of the week, I was resorting to my caveman antics. My enthusiasm backfired. Now I balance my efforts. If you know your limits, you can pace yourself intelligently.

12. Put fuel in the tank! Even if you see every moment as a natural opportunity to learn, there are words and concepts that you probably will not encounter in everyday life. This can lead to a large gap in your knowledge bank. Be proactive. Seek out new material with the express purpose of discovering words and sentence structure that would not experience organically in your day-to-day dealings. Buy a vocabulary book (preferable with an audio guide) and learn a new page every day, take lessons with a tutor, or play language learning games online.

Nerd tip: Learning a new language is such a boon for people with interest in the building blocks of communication. If you enjoy etymology, phonology, or morphology, every new phrase or word is a puzzle waiting to be solved. Use what you know to decipher new words. If you’re not sure how your languages connect, check out a linguistics tree to find the influences. Try Minna Sundberg’s gorgeous language tree to begin!

Keep your chin up and a balanced planner. Doing too much or too little can ruin the joy of progress. (photo credit Pexels)

14. Don’t drop the ball! Learning a language is like learning to play an instrument really well. You must practice every day or you will lose the fluidity and skill you have worked so hard to achieve. Every time you take a day or two “off” from speaking, writing, reading, and studying, you are making it that much harder to pick up again where you left off. Trust me, finding a balance between passion and pacing is key to making progress without losing all of your energy.

15. A few general tips for living in abroad:

As a foreigner, you might feel like a fish out of water, but every time you feel this way, remember what happens when fish leave the water… they grow legs. They learn to walk. They evolve.

Learning a Language Abroad

Use your intuition when speaking with people. When you find yourself surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, it takes awhile to make informed decisions on where you go, what you eat, and who you associate with. It is easy to take your acquaintances opinions and outlook as word, but don’t forget to take into account who they are and what level of education they have. Just be mindful of whether or not they are a reliable source of information. When in doubt, trust yourself. You are more savvy than you think.

There may come a time when it is not practical or possible to use your new language skills. When communication shuts down, you learn to make use of your other senses. Yes, you may not be able to read the signs at the grocery store, but you can use context clues to find your way. Stop trying to read the signs and just LOOK! Use common sense. For example, if you need to buy coffee filters, look for the end cap with coffee and tea paraphernalia. Heck, just go towards what you feel like is the “beverage section.” Or try a different sense. Use your nose. Can you smell coffee beans? Head towards that! Believe it or not, when I go out with my native friends, I often find my way before they do.

Learning another language and living in a foreign culture forces you to make comparisons and assess your understanding of the world. It is an opportunity to gain new perspective and expand your world views. I think that without even realizing it, people grow and mature when they travel. Enjoy your adventure, and the next time you visit “home” I think you’ll see how much you have changed.

Finally, I believe that one of the greatest advantages of living abroad is that people do not know you. They do not know your personality, your history, or your limitations. Use this as an opportunity to see yourself with fresh eyes as well. Forget what you think you know about yourself. Assess where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go. Reinvent yourself. Be who you want to be. People who stop changing, stop growing. There is always something new, something good out there. Keep an open mind, an adventurous soul, and a keen eye for anything that might enrich your life.

Sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself.... (Photo: Ben Blennerhassett)

Sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself.... (Photo: Ben Blennerhassett)


My most important advice for exploring is not specific to language; It applies to every moment of life, and I hope anyone reading this article gets a chance to experience its effect: Do not stagnate. Do not get lazy. Wake every morning with a passion for what you’re going to do that day and devour the experience with compulsion and hunger.