Yearly Archives: 2011

Culture as part of the communication 5

[the Red Queen] “But you make no remark?”

– “I didn’t know I had to make one-just then” – Alice faltred out.

– “You should have said,” – the Queen went on in a tone of grave reproof, – “It’s extremely kind of you to tell me all this”

(Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)

“Señor,” said Sancho, “I see well enough that all these things your worship has said to me are good, holy, and profitable; but what use will they be to me if I don’t remember one of them?

(Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)


          I am sure that every student of a foreign language is going to find himself, at some stage, in the same situation as Alicia with the Red Queen: unsure about what speech they have to use with a particular interlocutor, or how to materialize their communicative intentions, without any idea what is it that their interlocutor is expecting from them and if they should participate in a certain context. In sum, what ritual communication patterns must be followed.

          In the other hand, sometimes, the students get so overwhelmed with all the cultural information, not lived or experimented by themselves, not linked with their necessities or tastes, that they become “Sanchos”. They recognize the interest of those informations but they are sure this is not they way to interiorize that knowledge.

          And here is where it comes the importance or necessity of teaching culture as a insoluble part of the communication.

          But, what is culture?

          I won’t paraphrase definitions from others, for me, culture is what has been acquired or learnt inside the society, like the traditions or ways of life. This guided and repetitive behaviors and ways of thinking and feeling shared by one community. 

          So language and culture must go hand in hand, because both are essential in the communication. Knowing the language is not enough in a real situation since we use so many cultural elements in our speech that someone who doesn’t know this cultural aspects is going to hear a completely indecipherable message. 

          In the same way, when we learn a language and then we go to another country with the expectation of it, we use that language but follow our cultural patterns, which sometimes creates a feeling of frustration, of not understanding what is going on.

          I have a practical example: I have used this exercise in some spanish classes. Imagine this situation: a middle age person goes to another middle age person’s house to get back a book, they are acquaintance, but don’t know each other very much. There are 4 dialogues and the student has to chose the most likely to happen in Spain.


A. Good morning, what would you take?
B. Yes, a Coke, please
A. Want a drink?
B. No, thank you very much
… (after a while)
A. Well, goodbye. Until Monday
B. Goodbye, until Monday
A. Want a drink?
B. No, thank you very much
… (after a while)
B. But now yes, I am thirsty
A. Want a drink? A beer, a Coke …
B. No, no thank you very much
A. Or a coffee or tea …
B. No, really, thank you
… (a little later)
A. Are you sure you do not fancy a coffee or a soda?
m Well, yes. A cup of coffee, if you take it too …

        I got varied results between the students, but if you ask a Spanish, the answer will be always and without exception (so far…) number 4.

          For me is clear that teaching a language has, as main purpose, the communication in general and to communicate with the natives in particular, so whenever the teacher organizes a didactic unit, it has to bear in mind the vocabulary needed, the grammar included and the cultural element underlying. For instance, if the topic in class is “how to ask in a café, restaurant or bar”, i will plan my class around some vocabulary (drinks, food…), some tools (how to ask and answer), some grammar (question structures, verbs) and some cultural aspects (what register is used in a bar, what would expect the waiter for the customer, the register language and behaviors in those situations).

          I just need to have in mind my culture and the one of the student in order to keep a distance that will allow the student to reflect about the difference and how this differences affect the language, so that my student has information enough to know what it’s expected from him in every communicative situation, so he could chose whether to adapt himself to the cultural assumptions in every situation, or keep being foreigner, but at least he would have the tools to be in control of the situation.

          Maybe, understanding the culture as part of the communication, leaving the stereotypes away and focusing in what makes us different and equal, could lead us to a better understanding of the others, which is always very positive and highly enriching.

Why learn a new language?

Why spend time and effort in learning a foreign language when I can travel and communicate with the people without speaking their language? 


Well, there are so many reasons that I would need hundreds of posts, but I’m going to set out only the couple of ones that works for me. The reasons why I learn another language and the positive effects I can take out of it.

I love languages with all my heart, starting for my mother language, Spanish, and continue with all the rest. I speak French and English and started learning Chinese and Italian, even though I stopped temporarily due to a lack of time… but I’m determined to retake them some time in the future.

When I was a teenager, the main reason why I was interested in learning English was only to understand the lyrics of the songs but that was the beginning of it all…

The interest in learning and improving my English made me go to England for the summer months. Living in another country and interacting with people in another language that wasn’t my own opened my mind. It was the first time I saw a different way of doing things, of acting and thinking, and that was great. I just wanted more. Two months wasn’t enough, I really wanted to stay longer and keep learning; it wasn’t only about the language anymore, because the languages are inevitably entangled with the culture, the people. So when I came back from my “British experience”, my motivation for learning a new language was renewed and wider, and it was tangible. It wasn’t only for my CV or being more competitive – which is still a good reason – but because knowing a new language would allow me to know a new culture, first, which would widen my horizons. That was great!


After that experience, I started to learn French, and I chose very carefully the academy. I absolutely wanted a native teacher, not only for the obvious reasons: it’s their mother language, but because a native teacher would be from another country, with another culture and another way of thinking, which was terribly attractive to me.

I finished college and four months later I was on my way to France. I got a job as a Spanish assistant teacher in a high school. I was ecstatic. I was going to do the two things I love the most: teaching my own language and learn another one. Wasn’t it wonderful?

The time I spent in France was absolutely enriching. I improved my French to the point of being able to communicate in all kind of situations and express my feelings without any problem – I’ve got to know that one of the most difficult things in learning a language is express emotions – but, what was better, I understood another culture beyond the stereotypes.

And here comes other reason that moves me to know a foreign language, the fact that with the language, you learn, not only a culture, but a new pattern of thinking. It’s clear that every different language is constructed upon the necessities of communicate something of every different group of people and their ways of seeing the world, so these two aspects would have prevailed in the construction of the language. Getting to discover this underlying patters takes time, but is something that I think should be in the base of every good teaching method. It now comes to my mind that every language teacher I’ve met tell the students not to translate from their mother language, but to think in the language they want to communicate. That might be harder and more difficult, but it will be better in order to improve your communication and knowledge and broad thinking in the long run. I personally love the moment when I reach the level when I stop translating and start thinking in the foreign language.

Finally, the last positive outcome of learning a new language for me is that knowing another language and another culture gives you the opportunity of having an outside perspective about you and your culture. It will make you multicultural and give you a new view, a new way to see yourself.