The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #22 July / August 2016
Learning A Language Is Learning Its Culture
by Lucia Leite
July / August 2016 | 

First time learners of a foreign language may often have their hands full simply learning its grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. They might look at learning about cultural traditions, customs, and history as a "luxury" they might have time for after they have mastered some language fundamentals. In a certain sense, one can understand that it's already a lot to learn a language, so learning about the people and nations that use a language might seem burdensome. But the reality is that learning those things will give you a context and base not just to understand the language you are using, but to use it on-the-ground in these lands and places, and most importantly, retain that language long-term.

Country and History

Most modern nations did not simply spring into existence. They developed, in some cases, over thousands of years. It's important to know how a country came to be because whether people acknowledge it or not, that history informs the way they look at modern politicians and political movements. If you do not know the history of a country, you will also not understand references to that history embedded in the language itself. An example lies in the Norman invasion of England. These Normans, who invaded England by crossing the English Channel from what is modern-day northern France, changed the English language forever, endowing it with many French words. This made English less of a strongly Germanic language and is in part why many French can recognize familiar words within English, and why English speakers can sometimes take comfort in some French words that look familiar: "famille" is the French word for "family" in English, and "boeuf" is the French word for "beef," just to name two examples. The person learning French who knows this history understands better why there are so many related words and can take comfort in often trusting that many of those words mean something similar to what they do in their own native tongue.

You don't have to wait until you have mastered the language of a country to learn about a country and its history. Besides finding resources online, your local library may have films and magazines you can use. You can keep up with current events in those countries by apps and websites that feature printed, audio, and video content.

A panel from the Bayeux Tapestry, describing events leading up to the Norman conquest of England


In Spain, dinner is taken at around 9 or 10pm, which is considered very "late" by most European standards. In the United States, by contrast, dinners are often as early as 5pm and are considered "late" when starting after 8pm. Those dinners are often built around individual dishes that are not shared, whereas in Italy and China often dishes are ordered "family style," so that people may have lots of variety and choice and so that the meal is more shared. If you're learning languages spoken in those countries, it's important not to only think about a particular dish that you personally might want when ordering dinner, but to ask the group for feedback, as they will all be sharing the dish with you.

People having a "late" dinner on the streets of Italy

Something else to consider are customs like national holidays or vacation times. If you are hoping to visit a European country during July or August, for example, in order to practice your new language, you have to realize that many residents are gone on vacation and you may have more tourists than local residents to practice with.

Proverbs are also a fascinating way to "get inside" a language and culture. The French do not understand the English expression "when pigs fly," but they do have their own expression which conveys the same meaning, "when the chicken will have teeth."

Again, you don't have to go to a country to begin to experience its culture – look for restaurants and markets in your local area or even regionally. Perhaps there will be a festival soon that you can attend and use to learn more about the language you are learning.

People and Expressions

Sometimes when studying a language we get caught up so much in the verbal communication that we forget about the non-verbal communication. In France they often kiss you on the cheeks in greeting, though the number of kisses and the cheek that you start on depends on the region. In Southern France, for example, there are three kisses, starting from the right, whereas in Switzerland and Russia, those three kisses start from the left.

If you are hoping to visit a European country during July or August, for example, in order to practice your new language, you have to realize that many residents are gone on vacation and you may have more tourists than local residents to practice with.

All those kisses, regardless of which direction you begin, can help to give more context to a language, like French, which has different forms for "you" depending on whether you are a stranger or a friend. In many ways, the language itself seems to be formal, and indeed, in every day speech, this formality in France is continued. But when you see and understand the "bise" (the name for this kissing interaction) you can then put that formality in context. The French are seeking to be as polite as possible, since they do not take your friendship for granted. That switch from "vous" ("you" formal) to "tu" ("you" informal) not only will now test your use of the different verb conjugations, but also signals a change in your relationship with that person.

Ingrid Goossens & Wilfried Martins sharing a "bise" at the European People's Party Congress

It's also important to understand how people dress in their countries so that you don't stand out and thus create, perhaps, a barrier to those who wish to converse with you. There are many informative podcasts and videos online, many of them free, which can help you to better understand the people who speak the language you are trying to learn.

It is said that one breathes in a native language and swims in a second language. Indeed, learning a second language involves re-learning expressions, customs, and even ways of thinking that you might not have revisited since childhood. But that is perhaps why you need that greater context of history, culture, people, and nations. By understanding the environment in which the language is spoken, developed, and celebrated on a daily basis, you will improve your language studies immensely, create a greater "space" in your mind for placing that learning, and most importantly, have much to discuss with your new friends – in your new language, of course.

Lucia Leite is Portuguese with a degree in English and German. At the moment, she is taking a Master’s degree in English as a second language for young learners. She is also improving her Spanish and French. You can find her at

Learning A Language Is Learning Its Culture
Writer: Lucia Leite
EPP Congress Bonn: Bise at the European People's Party Congress
Petey: Cafe at night in Spain (title); Norman conquest of England; Dinner on the streets of Italy

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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