Scheffler: To learn a culture, learn a language

While learning a new language, you learn more about cultural values.

Scheffler: To learn a culture, learn a language

Nick Scheffler

There are many ways to get a better understanding of other cultures: eating the food, learning the history, laws and social norms. A more difficult but insightful way is to learn the language. While learning a new language, you learn more about cultural values. For example, German culture values one’s free time. Employees’ right to paid time off is even mandated by law, guaranteeing people a minimum of 20 days of paid time off, on top of public holidays. America doesn’t guarantee any paid time off for its workers besides 10 public holidays. 

This idea manifests itself in the language with the word “Freizeit”: frei meaning “free” and zeit meaning “time.” Pretty easy. However, the intricacies come when dealing with the word’s article: die. When talking about free time in German, the article is dropped, though you must include one for nearly every other noun. The word doesn’t function like every other noun. The word is as easy to use in the language as paid time is to use in the country. 

Another way language helps you learn about a culture is through its idioms. An idiom is an expression that has both a figurative and literal meaning. In English, there are an estimated 25,000 idiomatic expressions. These expressions are amazing. They are seemingly useless phrases, though native speakers understand what they truly mean. Common idioms include, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” or “Let’s go shoot the shit.” Obviously, cats and dogs don’t free fall from the sky and no one is actually shooting a pile of shit. But if you were not a native speaker of English, you would hear those phrases and be utterly confused as to what that person was talking about. 

My favorite German idiom is “ich verstehe nur Bahnhof,” which translates to “I only understand the train station.” This actually means, “I have no idea what this person is talking about.” The Swedish say, “to slide in on a shrimp sandwich” when referring to someone who didn’t have to work to get where they are. The French say, “to jump from the cock to the donkey” when changing topics without logic in a conversation. Some languages share similar idioms. The Thai saying, “one afternoon in your next reincarnation,” means “it’s never gonna happen.” In English, we say, “when pigs fly.” 

Idioms are truly the bee’s knees. You might be biting off more than you can chew when learning a new language, but every cloud has a silver lining. Idioms are a manner of speaking that is natural to the native speakers of a language. To get a better understanding of a culture, of a language and sound as close to you can as a native speaker, try learning some idioms.