Language and Culture | First Learn the Language, Then the Culture.
There is plenty of opportunity when we speak a foreign language to come across as silly. Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here and today I want to talk about cultural sensitivities and the specific cultural aspects of a language and why we should ignore them when we start into a new language and when it's appropriate to be more focused on this.
Uh, remember if you enjoy these videos, please subscribe, click on the bell for notifications. Um, if you're following me on a podcast service, please leave a review. So the reason I bring this up is that, uh, I was on Twitter and I had done a video earlier where I said that when I start a new language, I'm really not interested in the sort of detail, you know, names of relatives because many languages have more specific terms for relatives, you know, nd uncle is not just an uncle, it's either the mother, his brother, or the father's brother or cousin could be any number of combinations of relatives. And so an older sister, younger sister, older brother, younger brother, all of these things are, in some languages there's a lot of detail there that we don't have in English. And these are things that we eventually need to know if we're going to be operating comfortably in the language, but it's not a good idea in my experience to be confronted with these things at an early stage in the language, uh, the same goes with sort of polite language or different level of, uh, levels of politeness or introducing, you know, special festivals.
I remember in Japanese, there was early on, there was a lesson on irises and blue flags. It's some festival in Japan that I still don't know anything about. There's a tendency on the part of people who write textbooks to want to focus on what is different than call it esoteric and potentially attractive in the new culture.
Uh, but in my view, these things, if they come early, Uh, in the language learning process, they just add more difficulty. We're learning a new language, new words, new sounds. My experience is the more we can deal with things that are familiar to us, familiar situations, husband and wife, a brother and a sister without worrying about terms for older or younger, just people interacting with each other, using common vocabulary.
If we can have this more familiar content, then it's going to be easier to learn the language. And if we don't learn the term for older sister, younger sister at the beginner stage will eventually learn it. And the same is true with different levels of politeness. Now, so I said something to this effect in a video and, you know, I have been having sort of extracts or excerpts of some of my previous videos featured again.
So this came up and then this generated this flurry of activity on Twitter. Now, you know, and I can't remember what the wording was, but somebody sort of commented, you know, uh, I'm shocked that you would, uh, ignore these fine aspects of, uh, the culture. Um, many of the beginner words are tied up with these aspects of the culture.
And I said, well, give me some examples and the person didn't come back with any examples. Other than to say that she was shocked that I was prepared to be rude in the language. Um, you know, I think there is a tendency when we learn a language where their culture is very different or even not so different, that we become over-sensitive to these cultural differences. It's not easy to offend people. It's not easy to be rude. Uh, just because we use the wrong word or the wrong degree of politeness or anything else. If we are a beginner, first of all, when we're starting in the language, in my opinion, better off to focus on input.
So you're just absorbing the language and you may notice that sometimes it's "vous" and sometimes it's "tu", for example, in French. Polite or familiar, not familiar and graduallywe get used to this and maybe we find an explanation somewhere and we kind of tuck that in the back of our minds. And then when we go to speak eventually a few months later, we start speaking.
We may get it wrong, but we won't offend anyone. Uh, any more than if someone who is a beginner in English speaks to us and uses the wrong word or says something wrong. I mean, unless they're swearing at us, we're not going to be offended. We won't necessarily consider the person rude. We might, we might find them silly.
I mean, there is plenty of opportunity when we speak a foreign language to come across as silly. That comes with the territory. You have to be willing to sound less intelligent, uh, somewhat sillier than in your own language. That is something we have to accept if we're speaking a foreign language, but at the early stages, I think everything should be done to make it as easy as possible to get the language in you. So familiar situations, but here are these different words and here is how they say good morning, or here is how they say I'm going to work today or whatever it is. Very standard type, uh, words and situations. That's why our mini stories at LingQ are largely call them culturally neutral.
They're not completely culturally neutral. That's not possible. They were written by someone who, actually a Canadian woman who teaches English in Japan. So she's going to reflect that to some extent, but in many cultures of the world, we get up, we make breakfast, people go to work, uh, people might be cleaning their apartment or their house or any of the different situations that we have there are relatively, relatively cultural neutral. They don't go into very culturally specific things in our mini stories. Those are our existing 60 mini stories. I think it would be great to have some culturally specific mini stories so that the principle of the many stories, the repetition, the high-frequency verbs, we contain... we sort of maintain that, but we introduce things that are specific to Persian culture, which would be fine for me because I'm learning Persian or Arabic culture or uh, or, or France or China or Russia or Japan, so we can have those. Uh, I think those are better later. Now, bare in mind, I'm talking about my personal perspective on this, of course, I eventually wanted to get into the cultural, uh, culturally specific things, and I want to choose those things that I find interesting.
And it may be that, uh, you know, Japanese cooking is what I'm interested in more so than say Japanese dance, for example, or I'm not interested in anime. We can choose those things that we're interested in, and that will inspire us further in our study. But if at an early stage, we don't get the degree of politeness correct in Korean or Japanese, that doesn't mean we won't be able to get it right later on. This is another thing, cause there's a number of exchanges here on Twitter and people implying well, you know, if you don't get it right at the beginning, you'll forever be speaking impolitely. That's not true. Uh, there are any number of things that we get wrong at the early stage.
From the tense to the person, to the gender to... and that doesn't mean that at some stage, because we've been listening and reading so much and becoming more and more familiar with the language at some stage, we'll get better and we'll get better with all of these aspects. So I think the, this idea that you have to get, and it's a bit like, you know, a lot of the things that are typically introduced early on in, in these beginner books, including colors, for example, I have no capacity for absorbing seven colours, uh, in one lesson, uh, or all the numbers in one lesson. Uh, it's just part and parcel of all the things that will gradually be, be absorbed by the brain in due course, and ideally absorbed within content that we can cope with, that is relatively familiar. And, you know, words that repeat often and gradually we get better and as we build up, we pursue areas of interest or we get better. And we realize, actually, if you're talking about levels of politeness in Japanese and Chinese, we realize as we understand and hear better, what other people are saying. And we understand better in what situations, which words are used, which levels of politeness are used.
We then get better at doing that ourselves. Uh, and that's part of the reason why I'm very much against, uh, teaching slang because you, you also have to have a good sense of where slang is appropriate. Not to mention swear words which can be used at some point but are best avoided until we have a good sense of when to use them.
Similarly, the levels of politeness, we will eventually develop a feel for when to use them. And the idea that somehow people in other cultures are easily offended if we get things wrong, even though we know that we ourselves wouldn't be by someone getting similar things wrong, why would they be? I think there's sort of an over sensitivity to what we perceive to be more, you know, exotic cultures that we have to step very carefully, walk on eggshells.
I don't believe that. I think people are similar everywhere. They encourage you to learn the language. Not everyone, not everyone. There will be people who might be offended. There are people who have no patience sort of to deal with you. If you're learning their language and you butcher it, there's always those people, but the majority of people aren't that way.
So I just thought I would comment on that. So when you get started in the language, I say, go easy on the culture. You'll get to it eventually. And you'll find those things that interest you and, and presumably it's, uh, it's, uh, a general interest in the culture that has encouraged you sort of to learn the language, but it'll all come and do course you don't have to get it in the big enterprise.
So, that would be something that I've been engaging with people on Twitter. And of course, Twitter is a very special kind of medium people tend to just say things without really having thought them through. Uh, but it's, it's fun. It's... you get a sense of what some people are thinking, how representative they are.
It's hard to gauge because if you're in a particular silo, you'll get a lot of people commenting, reflecting a similar point of view that may not be very representative. So, um, yeah, with that, the idea of culture, I've always been interested in culture, but not upfront. And I leave you with a couple of videos that talk about getting started in a language and the role of culture.
Thank you for listening. Bye for now.