How To Learn About A Culture Without Knowing Its Language?
When travelling or relocating to a new place, the common sense advice is to learn the local language. There are many benefits to this, but it mostly boils down to the ease of communication, from making new friends, to getting things done or even as simple as to order your meals the way that you like it.
However, learning a new language is challenging for many. It’s like learning how to operate a Mac when you have been using Windows all your life. Or learning to write with your left hand when you have been using your right. So… Can You Learn About A Culture Without Learning Their Language? Yes, you CAN! While there are many ways to do this, there are 3 broad methods in learning about a culture, which are:
- Getting Involved
It’s undeniable that language is important to understanding culture, but language acquisition can be difficult and not a good use of time if you’re only going to be in the new culture for a short period. Also, language acquisition alone is not enough to learn about a new culture. There are many local and regional nuances that a language course may not reveal or focus on. For example, the English language itself is reliant on its local context. A non-native speaker may have trouble understanding the South African, Irish or even Singapore English, if they were only taught American English. Though language learning, paired with the methods in this post, will certainly get you further in understanding adapting to a new culture.
Before delving into these methods, you’ll need to ask and reflect upon your motivation and goals. What do you wish to gain from learning about this new culture? To help you answer this question, we’ll first discuss what is culture and what does it entail?
With languages, you are at home anywhere.
Edward De Waal
What is Culture?
In its essence, culture is the unspoken rule of how things work within a group or a community. Cultural groups can be as small as a couple of people to as large as a nation or an ethnic group.
Cultures may use various symbols to represent feelings, instructions, events, visions, hopes, beliefs and much more. Language is the vehicle, an auditory and visual symbol, to convey the various messages.
While it is undeniable that language is important in learning a new culture, there are many other elements which can help you gain knowledge about the new culture. Of the many elements that make up a culture, there are two essential areas that can help a cultural newbie to better understand and adapt into the new culture.
Another important component are the social structures. Social structures are how a group of people, either family, community, workplace or even a nation, chooses to organise themselves and regulate individual behaviours based on rules and principles that are formally or informally established. Social structures focus on the organisation of relationships and its patterns. On a macro level, some examples are the economic, legal, political, educational, healthcare systems and many others.
On a more micro level, let’s say within the workplace, it’ll be the relationship between the various roles. When in a new cultural environment, observe and ask:
- What are the different roles within the group? How do they relate to each other?
- How does the group make decisions? Does everyone have a say or only certain individuals?
- How are the decisions executed?
- What are the undertones within the group with regards to their relationships?
Understanding social structures of the group will help you decipher the rules and principles that come along with them as well as your possible role and position within the structure.
Behaviours & Interactions
Apart from the social structure of how people relate to one another, it is also meaningful to observe individual behaviours and how people interact with one another.
Make note of their gestures, speech, facial expressions and their interaction with others and the environment. Do they speak loudly or softly? Is touch among people acceptable? How do opposite genders treat each other? How about between the elderly and the youth? How do the locals respond to foreigners?
These interactions will give you an idea of what is deemed as welcomed, acceptable or even offensive behaviour. You wouldn’t want to accidentally offend someone and break relationships!
Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?
📸 by Dollar Gill
The Three Methods of Learning a Culture
There are many ways in which we can learn about a culture without learning the language. Of these many ways, they can be categorised into 3 methods: Research, Observation and Getting Involved.
The first method is through research. Reach out to your preferred search engine and start entering keywords associated with the new culture you are curious about.
Many expats, travellers, students, bloggers, vloggers and podcasters willingly share their cultural observations, experiences and insights online. Also, search for news, movies, television shows, books, music or even art from the new culture. There are millions of content out there, you’ll surely find content in your native language. Even if the content might be spoken in a different language, watching movies or television shows will give you a sense of the new culture’s social structure and their interactions.
When on a business trip, tune into the local news channel in your hotel room or skim through their local papers. Once on a trip to Nepal, I skimmed through a local english newspaper and noticed that the Nepali and Malaysian economic relationship were in the front pages. This surprised me because such news never made it into the Malaysian newspaper on any of the pages. This in itself gives an insight on the importance of economic relationship to Nepali society and how the locals regard Malaysians.
A few observation and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning lead to truth.
Observation is one of the most powerful skills anyone could have. While observation may seem like a simple skill, there are many layers and nuances to observation. Skilled observation involves
- Being present
- Staying silent
- Active Listening
- Making mental notes
- Being curious
- Sifting between what has actually happened and your own personal biases, interpretations, assumptions, projections of the situation.
All of these observations can provide much insight to the unspoken rules, values, principles, norms of the new culture. After observing, find someone you trust and who understands the culture you come from and the local culture to confirm the interpretations of your observations.
However, be aware of your own biases and judgements. Don’t be mistaken that a handful of instances has meaning for the entire cultural group!
For example, while strolling the streets of Yangon, I noticed red markings on the floor and come to realise they are the residue from betle nut chewings. From this alone, I might assume that everyone in Yangon loves to chew betel nut! However, after speaking to a local friend about betel nut chewing, she explained how locals view the habit as unhealthy and unhygienic. If I hadn’t asked, I would’ve stuck to my initial assumption.
Finally, no better way to learn a culture is to get involved. Take the time to interact with the locals and explore the environment. You can take a few hours or even a few days to wander about. Go where the locals go, such as the local markets, bars, shopping centres, restaurants, museums or parks. Take the public transport to a new place. Personally, I enjoy going to the local supermarket to see different food products and try out its different flavours.
Participate in a local event, such as a seminar, networking event, music concert, art exhibition, or the local theatres. If you have a hobby, such as dancing, hiking, yoga or even bird watching, find the local hobby group and join their meetups. There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer to a cause you feel deeply for and give back to the local community.
Getting involved will give you the opportunity to interact, assess and confirm your reflections and learnings from your research and personal observations.
Can you truly learn about another culture without learning the language?
Indeed you can! However, language will always be an important component of learning a new culture. When you skip out on learning the language, you will also miss out on the opportunity to connect at a deeper-level, engage with the community and evolve alongside the people of that cultural group. When you have picked up the courage and confidence, perhaps you should consider tackling that new language. In the meantime, remember to research, observe and get involved.
Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates thriving and engaging workplaces.
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