Cultural Immersion

When learning a language it helps if you can immerse yourself as much as possible in it. It also helps if you immerse yourself in the culture of the people who speak the language. One if the first things you learn might be the words to use to greet people, for example, but do you know whether to shake their hands, bow, kiss their cheeks, or do something else when you greet them? Do you know which topics of conversation are acceptable and which are best avoided? Do you know how close to stand to someone and how to take turns in conversation? These are all important parts of culture that differ from country to country, and even within countries. Some language text books touch on things like this, but few go into any depth.

There are books and websites that explain the cultures and etiquette of particular countries – I find the Culture Shock! series of books interesting and useful. You can also learn about culture, at least to some extent, by watching films and TV programmes, but the best way is probably to spend time in a country or region where your target language is spoken and to be observant, and to ask questions about any cultural practices that puzzle you.

You might end up adopting some of the cultural practices, even ones that seemed really strange at first. For example, after spending time in Japan I started taking off my outdoor shoes and putting on indoor ones when arriving home, and being prepared to do so elsewhere. This habit has become so ingrained that it feels somehow wrong to wear outdoor shoes inside.

Do you try to learn about culture as well as language? If so, how do you go about it?

Have you adopted any habits or customs from other cultures?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

6 Responses to Cultural Immersion

  1. BG says:

    Beyond what’s presented in language courses/textbooks, movies and spending time in countries, I also enjoy talking to native speakers about cultural differences, whether I am currently experiencing their culture or they are experiencing mine. One habit I’ve adopted from German culture is starting with the thumb when counting on my fingers. Americans start with their first finger and use the thumb last. Germans (and probably other Europeans, too) start with their thumb. This was referenced in Inglorious Basterds, where it blows the Americans’ cover at one point. I find the German way more logical, so I usually use it.

  2. Lucas says:

    1. Sometimes the logic behind the language is inherent to certain cutural aspects, because of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. And the much different the culture, more it’s inevitable to learn about it. For example, the analytical morphology of Classical Chinese (which is even more ambiguous than Modern Chinese) forces you to think in a Zen-like fashion.
    2. When you read texts in foreign languages you will eventually acquire a handful of anthropological information. Most of the Sanskrit literature, for example, focuses on religion and philosophy.
    3. This immersion, even when not necessarily linked to the language, makes the learning process much more effective and entertaining. When learning Japanese, people often bring to their personal lives certain oriental costumes, like not using shoes inside the house.

  3. Andrew says:

    In Korea, you customarily give and receive objects with two hands, or with one hand supporting the receiving hand. Also, you nod your head or bow to greet others, especially seniors. After living in Korea for one year, I’ve adopted both of these cultural practice, so much that even when I go back to the US, I bow to people I meet and give things with both hands. My family thinks it rather odd, but I can’t help it!

    In a similar vein as to what BG mentioned about counting, ever since I studied ASL, I’ve used my thumb, index, and middle fingers to represent “3” instead of the index, middle, and ring (which represent “W” in ASL). Whenever I count on my hands in front of my students, I use ASL, and sometimes I wonder if my students are confused by these gestures, since past “5” the signs don’t appear very intuitive at first glance.

  4. Jim M. says:

    @Andrew: Thanks for posting! Was wondering if the local Korean dry cleaner lady was putting the moves on me. Embarrassing situation averted.

  5. David Eger says:

    Indian customs regarding right and left hands are fairly well known, I think – and the reason behind them, too. I have never been to India, but I understand that, in addition to all food being prepared and eaten with the right hand, it is the custom to give an object with the right hand and receive with the left.

  6. b_jonas says:

    Adopting customs from other cultures? No way. I’m still struggling to understand all the customs of our culture, and to apply them without mistakes.

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