I have been learning different languages since I was eight years old: our great school system in Finland makes it possible. You first start with English and move on to Swedish. I started learning Swedish as soon as it was possible back then – at fifth grade. At seventh grade I also added German in. I continued with these three languages through upper secondary school and university of applied sciences. During upper secondary school I also studied some basics about Russian, Spanish and Italian. I have always been interested in different languages and tried to use all the possibilities available to learn new ones. Been living my whole life in a pretty small town, however, did not offer that enormous possibilities.
During my years of learning languages I have noticed that it has also taught me a lot about the cultures behind the languages even though I have not consciously studied cultural issues. One of my earliest memories from English lessons is my teacher’s constant reminders about using the word “please”. I tended to forget the word since I did not understand why you should always be fawning on everybody. It was already easier when it came to German and “bitte”. So, early on I learned that Finns are considered rude because in our language and culture it is not typical to use words like “please” and “bitte” and we tend to forget them when communicating with other languages. British people were considered polite, precise, and even quaint. Then they introduced us American English and Australian English among others which sounded hilarious and you could instantly feel that these words are not from the precise Brits.
However, if you only communicate with a teacher in a classroom and some fellow students the cultural aspects might remain quite superficial. The best way to learn a language is to speak it with the natives. The culture comes at the same time automatically, especially if you are able to travel to the country and stay there for a while. I have been two times in Germany with my class and that has taught me the most about the language and also the culture behind it. I have also been actively involved in all kinds of exchange student happenings during my years in upper secondary school and in university of applied sciences. I was never myself as an exchange student which is a shame but you are able to learn also just by communicating with exchange students in your own environment. I would like to encourage all of you others as well to contact foreign students and leave your prejudice aside – you cannot imagine how much you can learn!
Zart (2012) wrote wisely that learning a language without the cultural framework in which it exists is like cooking ethnic food without the spices of the region. And I am certain that if you learn a language you simply even cannot avoid learning about the culture on the side. And why should you even try not to? The world today is smaller than ever and in business life as well as in our spare time we have to more and more take up with people from different cultures. My spouse said to me couple days ago after walking our dog: ”I think I have to start learning Russian that I can communicate with our neighbours”. He had met a Russian speaking lady who had tried to comment something related to our poodle but they did not find a common language. This is still often true in business life as well. Cultural misunderstandings are another story that I am not going to discuss in here. However, I think that you do not lose anything by learning languages and other cultures. On the contrary, you learn more about your own culture in addition as I did with the word “please”. So even if you are not that eager to know about others you should do it at least for yourself and for your own culture! And before you even notice you want to know more and more.
Zart, B. (2012). The Importance of Culture in Language Learning [blog]. Available at: http://billzart.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/the-importance-of-culture-in-language-learning/
Text: Riikka Korhonen, student in FV11A9502 Independent Study in English course