Understanding A Culture Through Its Native Language

Learning a language seldom occurs in a vacuum. When you learn a new language, you also get to know more about the culture of the people who speak the language.

For example, Mandarin Chinese has words like关系 ‘guan xi’ that people regard as having no English equivalent. Hence, to comprehend what ‘guan xi’ is, one needs to put themselves in the shoes of the Chinese and understand how they perceive relationships and networking. One then realises through learning language how much importance Chinese people put on the concept of mutual reciprocation and the like.

Now, that’s just one language, but the world has an estimated 7000 languages! That’s a lot of languages and cultures for you to explore. Learning languages is a window to the cultures and perspectives of the world, so if you are curious about another culture, try learning the language.

Here are some aspects of culture that a knowledge of the native tongue can help you gain a deeper appreciation of:


History is a treasure-trove of knowledge, such as historical events, ancient teachings and philosophies, and classical literary works. True history buffs will know how crucial an understanding of the language is to interpreting these ancient records, as many things that we receive in translation may have lost some layers of meanings. Just think of Shakespeare: Reading Shakespeare with our current knowledge of Modern English won’t give us the same appreciation of all the wit and wordplay as when we read with an understanding of early Modern English.

Same goes for other languages. Classical Chinese texts, Japanese literature, and other historical texts are best appreciated and understood in its original language. This allows the reader to read between the lines and achieve an integrated understanding of the layered meanings and social context of the writing.

Art Forms

Different cultures have their own distinctive art forms, be it dance, theatre, visual arts, and more. While you may think that artworks like paintings are universally understood, a knowledge of the artist’s language could in fact help you appreciate the art more. When you know the language, you know more about the culture of the people, and this is useful in interpreting art of any form, because art is greatly influenced by one’s culture, their perspective of the world, and the social context surrounding the artist.

Even if you are not the artsy-fartsy type, you are likely to still consume art forms through movies, TV shows, or anime today. Most people would agree that watching a foreign film in its original language sounds better than when its dubbed. Somehow, it just conveys the emotions and authenticity of the story better. Now, imagine that you can understand the foreign language without relying on the subtitles – now you won’t miss any scenes from glancing down at the subtitles, and you get the most true-to-life experience of the film.

Cultural Nuances

Ever gone to another country only to have people stare at you queerly because you committed a faux pas unknowingly? Social norms differ across cultures, and some of these rules can be learnt explicitly without learning the language. For example, in Japan, it is considered a compliment to the chef if you slurp your noodles loudly, but in the US, slurping would be very rude!

In terms of language, there are also rules for how different cultures communicate, and some of these are best learnt through language itself. For example, in Japan and Korea, terms of address are strictly hierarchical. Thus there are different ways to address someone depending on their age and social relation to you. If you didn’t learn Korean, everyone might be a ‘bro’ to you, but when you go to Korea, you need to know when to call someone ‘older brother’, ‘younger brother’, ‘senior’, or ‘junior’, or ‘teacher’, and the list goes on.

Similarly, for Japanese, there are also various terms of address based on hierarchy. To learn more about these specific terms and other social nuances rooted in language, Japanese classes in Singapore make great starting points.

 As you can see, learning a language opens up doors to understand so much more about another culture. Whether you are interested in the historical aspect, the art forms, or simply want to learn how to communicate appropriately in another country, learning a new language will empower you to delve deeper into another culture with more ease.

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