Language, culture and context are intertwined

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I am not really that passionate about languages.

It’s unlikely you’ll see me ever studying a language like Latin or ancient Greek, or picking a language based on integrate grammar points or because its phonemes or particular tones could be a “fun challenge”. There are people who do like these things and that’s great!

But to me, languages are a means to an end. I choose my languages based on cultures that I wish to get to know.

What really makes a language hard

What makes a language difficult is not some impersonal list of grammar and vocabulary comparisons with your mother tongue, but the context and culture of how you’ll be learning and using it. Your mentality will mean that you will end up being your worst enemy and ultimately it will be your own fault for making the language hard.

Adapting to these issues is part of the language learning journey, and I’m attempting to adapt myself right now!

Dutch may seem like an “easy” language to learn after German, but I’m actually running into a few problems! No, I don’t need a language teacher to come to my rescue and explain prepositions or separable verbs to me. Dutch culture is what I am having trouble with.

It’s surprisingly difficult to make new Dutch friends here in Amsterdam compared to other places I’ve lived in! It’s not north-European coldness, as I definitely didn’t have this issue in Berlin and I can’t see it being a problem when in Ireland either. But there definitely is greater distance with strangers here than what I have gotten used to in other places.

However, making the claim that it’s simply too hard to overcome cultural problems is the same lazy excuse about the language being hard so many people fall on. I prefer to understand the problem, especially my contribution to it.

Cultural context

For example, one of the toughest language challenges I’ve ever faced was to learn French. Before any French readers beam with pride about it being that complex, my problem was actually getting along with Parisians. After 9 months in Paris I simply had to give up and move somewhere else. It wasn’t until years later that I started to understand what the real problem was.

Here in Amsterdam I’m slowly starting to find pieces of the puzzle too. For example, the Dutch seem incredibly organised and take out diaries to plan any meeting. I feel like the most important Dutch phrase I’ve learned so far is Ik heb geen tijd (I’ve got no time), as they see how packed their calendar is (and this includes students and those working part-time!)

So my usual “we should meet up some time!” is actually a terrible thing to say here if I do want to meet them later. If you don’t propose a time and place, several days, or even weeks, in advance, and have them check their paper or smartphone diary, then it’s unlikely to ever take place. This is a generalisation of course, but something that several foreigners and Dutch have been confirming for me.

This means that I have to adapt myself, propose a time (which for me is quite hard as I prefer to be spontaneous and I’m certainly not very organised! I’m only inviting people out for a coffee, not coordinating a space shuttle launch) and try to figure out what else could be causing the problem. Perhaps it’s my personality, perhaps it’s because they know I’m leaving soon, perhaps it’s because I need a proper introduction from a friend rather than meeting them randomly, and maybe some people simply just don’t want to make new friends.

I’ll continue to investigate – as this is my real main reason to be here: to understand the Dutch people and how they think. This is obviously way harder to do from the outside.

Surprisingly, I feel that my level of Dutch is not the issue here. People have been very encouraging and interested to hear me speak. As always, it’s giving me a major edge over other foreigners, but not quite enough!

Despite these issues, my Dutch is improving quickly and I’m already comfortable to converse with people, and those in the email list will continue getting more detailed updates about that. However, if I don’t start getting more consistent practice soon then reaching my goal of fluency will be much harder.

Non academic challenges

This is why I get annoyed by people who think their language progress is measurable by the number of words they “know” and other such purely content-based criteria. It separates a language from its culture and context of use.

Saying one language or another is easy or hard because of this or that point ignores how easy it will be for you to speak it. In many cases it’s actually dramatically easier than you thought because most people all around the world are eager to help you learn their language. Despite what people told me, this is definitely true in Amsterdam too. This encouragement will feed back into your progress more than impersonal courses ever can.

If their end goal isn’t to speak with natives, that’s fine. Just be clear about it; then content-based criteria are indeed very useful to gauge how well you can read etc.

But to speak with natives, how does that help if you wouldn’t be able to follow body language quirks, social context differences, and avoid cultural taboos? These are much more important for maintaining pleasant conversations than occasionally having to ask what something means.

This is one of the many reasons I feel that people should learn with people. Using the language with human beings will not only force you to learn to develop and improve your language skills quicker, in spoken situations relevant to you (classrooms and courses all tend towards being too generic) but it will give you an insight into things you’ll never learn in a language lesson that will be much more important.

A language can never exist just in a book. It’s deeply connected to the culture that uses it and to how you use it with that culture. Separate that culture and context and then all you really have left is something useful for passive use of a language, and not for communication.

Thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments below!



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  • Zane Claes

    I’m glad you linked back to your older post on French here, going back and reading it changed my perspective a bit. I’m in the South of France right now learning French and the people are exceptionally nice and helpful. However even the extraordinarily limited interaction I have had with Parisians had unfortunately left me with a similar negative and incorrect take-away.

    Glad to hear you’re finding a way around your latest challenges!

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      After Paris I moved to Toulouse and everything changed :) I’m so glad I did it at the time, as I was almost ready to give up on French! Southerners were very helpful and friendly compared to what I had experienced in Paris.

      Not 100% sure that I’ve found a way just yet, I’ve got ideas and if they don’t work I’ll try other ones :)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I’ve deleted the word “dramatically” since I don’t think it was clear I was being a bit ironic when I say that.

    Deep psychological reasons? I’m just travelling. As said in this very post, I don’t organise and think about things so much. I wanted to live in Amsterdam and get to know people from here and doing so through the language has made my experience richer in the past. That’s about it! Amsterdam was recommended to me by many people, so it’s been on my “list” for a while.

    As far as time goes, this argument really makes no sense without context. My 9 months in Paris didn’t really give me much of a look into Parisian culture to be honest, but just FIVE DAYS in Cali, Colombia and I had some deep friendships, seen a side of the city foreigners rarely see and felt as good as I belonged there, with locals confirming as much. I was very sad to leave it as well.

    I do a lot in my 2 months – it certainly isn’t a holiday sitting on a beach or partying every day. To be honest if you spent 6 weeks anywhere and didn’t make any friends then we have very different styles of travel! In most situations I make friends my first day or two. This is posing a bit of a challenge (apart from foreign friends, like Italians and Brazilians which I am making), but I won’t be giving up so easily ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I have to admit, the change needed for Paris (at least for me) is quite hard, so I have to say that I understand your sentiment. To this day, I still recommend people move to any city but Paris when they want to learn French, just so it will be easier for them. Having said that, at least *I* get along well with Parisians! Met one just the other night and he shocked me by saying that he forgot he was talking to a foreigner a minute into the conversation!! I never thought I’d hear such a compliment from a Parisian!

    I also lived in Lannion for a month – fun place!

    • Andrew

      EVERYONE else in France hates the Parisians, all other French people consider them rude and stuck-up, as one French guy put it to me: “Hating Parisians is the French national sport.”

      They’re not just rude to foreigners, they’re rude to everybody, including other French people. Everyone outside of Paris is actually very nice.

      • Jennie Wagner

        Ha so true! My boyfriend hates Parisians too.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    You are better asking that question in relevance to this post: I just make the switch, no thinking about it. Time is better utilised than wasted!

  • Aubergine

    Methods like LinQ and input-first are not just interested in fluency, I agree. But I think it’s a mis-characterisation to say they will only help you get good at reading. The priority of such methods is native-like fluency and native-like literacy. You want enough language to communicate with Dutch people- they want enough language to BE a Dutch person- or as close to as a foreigner can get.

    Given your focus on fluency, it’s sufficient to be able to communicate with no loss of understanding- if you don’t know the word for “armadillo” you can describe what it looks like and core features and be understood. That isn’t acceptable to other people (even though some native speakers might need to resort to talking-around words they don’t know) many people want to be able to engage with their second language on the same level they engage with their first language.

    If they are undergraduate educated and can discuss philosophy, politics and literature in their native tongue using field-appropriate jargon, they want to be able to do that in their second language. It has nothing, necessarily to do with reading, if you want to debate the merits of capitalism versus socialism in person with no reading involved you still need to know the core vocabulary terms.

    You can, of course, pick up those terms by using communicative strategies. But I’d actually agree that once you reach a certain upper-intermediate/ advanced level of proficiency that reading becomes a more comprehensive way of reaching native-like levels even in speech. Conversation, beyond a certain point, starts to becomes a slower method of acquiring new concepts and often doesn’t even touch on certain concepts. Not to mention that speed of silent reading is usually faster than conversation (case in point- in English I can listen to a lecture at Uni which takes an hour, or spend 15 minutes of reading to gain more-or-less a similar level of understanding).

    Anyway, this is somewhat tangental to your original post, but I guess the main point is that knowing words is important, not just for reading, but for reaching “native-like” levels. To people like Steve at LinQ, I think that is the goal. Not fluency but KNOWING the language- in its “entirety”, or at least working towards that.

    I’d also say that cultural references and ideas aren’t just something you gain through conversation- as you’ve highlighted with Dutch you sometimes need a cultural understanding before you can engage in meaningful conversation! An awareness of pop-culture, cultural history and pragmatic devices like politeness, honorifics, turn-taking isn’t necessarily gained just through conversation alone- quite often observation and engaging with those aspects of culture.

    Given you only ever stay in a country for short periods you’re quite happy, I think, to gain a fairly superficial understanding of the culture you’re living in. You want to meet people and learn about the culture from natives, but you’ll still usually be left with an “outsider’s perspective”. More intense systems of language learning don’t just want to understand a new culture- they want to be able to live that culture- it’s not simply enough to know that Japanese people, for example, have a strong sense of empathy and “face”, rather such people want to be able to apply empathy and “face” in social situations.

    Anyway. Good post, I just felt it important to kind of call you out on saying that LinQ-type methods will only make you good at reading. I agree that they aren’t good for conversational fluency- but rather they try and go deeper into the language and culture than you usually attempt to.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      LingQ is definitely useful, but to say it will help you BE a native is nothing short of ludicrous. I’m sure everyone there “wants” to be one, and I’d also love to know every word in the world, but it’s not practical. Now I’m going to call YOU out and say please provide me with some kind of useful data about sitting in front of a computer screen or podcast being in any way useful to “becoming a native”? LingQ doesn’t deal with ANY of the issues I discussed in this post!! Ignoring them is the best way to sound and give a feeling of “I’m definitely with a foreigner”, no matter how words you know.

      I’ve seen the output from these systems and I’m not impressed. They have zero body language adaptations, no proper intonations and musicality in their speech (which I’ve only worked on with my Portuguese; obviously there’s only so much I can do in a few months), and would be blissfully unaware of so many aspects of talking with natives that you simply can’t find written down in books.

      Needing to know words like armadillo is precisely the wastefulness of such approaches that gets your attention away from IMPORTANT stuff.

      I will agree with you though that reading and non-communicative approaches become important for gaining advanced vocabulary. Pure in-person communication is not the way to get *all* aspects of a language, but it is played down dramatically by you and those in LingQ and other systems.

      I do indeed work on that – I’m happy with my level of German, but I’ll go back to LingQ today actually to brush up and maybe learn a few more words because a German friend is visiting for 2 days. So yes, it can help. But LingQ or other non-spoken approaches alone are a stupid way to reach fluency; use it WITH conversation.

      This is not an either/or argument. There are many ways to improve your level, and I constantly send people to LingQ, but without applying the communicative approach NOW they are shooting themselves in the foot.

      It’s your opinion that my experience and understanding of a culture is superficial, but ludicrous to say that “they want to be able to live that culture” – I feel like you don’t get what I’m doing AT ALL. Studying all a language’s words and not spending time with natives is a dreadfully superficial way to learn about them. You can’t learn these things by listening to pop-songs and reading history books. If you see people do something a million times on MTV that natives do, it counts for nothing if you aren’t doing it yourself. Unless of course… all of this “cultural interest” is passive. It’s fine if that’s what the goal is, but let’s call a spade a spade. They’ll understand a culture as an outsider and I’m living it.

      I stand by what I said; those methods are terrible for understanding anything deep about a culture. Get your head out of books and computer screens, and spend time with people.

  • John C

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now… And at first I was a hater, but now I’ve really found out for myself that you are right on the money.

    In learning languages (I sorta hate this phrase now, because it’s not even half of what that experience really entails), the hardest and most essential part is finding what to talk about. What is appropriate to say, and when? What gaps in knowledge and experience and culture do I have with the people I am trying to communicate with? How does one be a person in this culture?

    How many words you know just isn’t as important. People’s daily vocabulary is actually quite small.

    I hate to be negative, but I feel it’s necessary to point out because the comparison between systems like LingQ and yours are already being made….Watching people like Steve Kaufmann speak Mandarin and Cantonese (languages I’m fluent in) on YouTube is just painful. It’s so abundantly clear that he rarely, if ever, has contact with Chinese people in Chinese. Nothing about his mannerisms or expression is remotely Chinese.

    There’s nothing wrong with LingQ, but if you don’t have frequent contact with people who speak a language you are trying to learn, there is only so far you can go.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Glad to see at least *some* of the haters are giving me a chance beyond making silly assumptions just based on my site’s domain name! :)

      I’ve watched his videos in other languages and out of those I’m fluent in I have to say that I’m not impressed either by his expression and mannerisms, which remain consistently exactly the same. I’m constantly told by natives that it almost feels like they are talking with someone from their home country (last time was last weekend by a Parisian of all people!), and it’s precisely because I put so much emphasise on non-spoken aspects of communication with people from various countries.

      His accents are another issue, but mine can just as easily be criticised, and something I’ll work on as I have time to focus on each language again. Surprisingly, an accent is not THE ultimate determiner in how comfortable natives feel around you, and neither is your scope of vocabulary. These things do indeed help, but are shadowed by other things people never consider.

      The thing is though that I have only put a couple of months into each of my languages, and have lots to improve on, but I at least try to change these aspects when talking. I have yet to see any advantage at all to long-term input when it comes to non-passive conversations. I will continue to send people to LingQ and continue to say that its benefits are for improving your passive understanding of languages.

      I’ve learned what I know from spending time with people. No book, podcast or computer screen can ever compare (although I do definitely use them in unison to help me along).

  • Edwin on Languages

    Hi Benny,
    Just want to hear your opinion on Esperanto. It is an artificial language with almost no cultural context. You can hardly hang around with true native speakers.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Esperanto does have a cultural context, albeit not historical or country specific. There is a certain international open-minded modern attitude shared by all it speakers, and they are simply bucketloads of fun to hang out with! I get a lot out of attending those meetings, so to me Esperanto definitely opens up my doors to a new quasi-culture.
      Not hanging out with “true native speakers” is irrelevant in the context of Esperanto.

  • Janelle Klander

    Hey Benny, People think I’m obsessed with languages too having my language exchange community website, but really I’m obsessed with cultures and bringing people of different backgrounds together. I also think having that in mind when learning a language can really make learning more fun instead of feeling like a chore, since you are learning more about the culture when you learn the language. Good luck with meeting new people. (I was going to have my Dutch friend meet you, but he’s in Turkey)

    • Benny the Irish polyglot


  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I also have things I simply am more likely to say and will learn those rather than repeating from natives. Good job on becoming fluent in Spanish!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I’ll be visiting other places throughout May ;)

    Great job on starting a blog!! Thanks for the shout-out :D

  • Andrew

    This actually sounds a lot like what I’ve heard about Scandinavia, and if you ever travel there I think you’ll see precisely the same thing. The reason you didn’t encounter that in Germany is because it was in Germany, that’s not really considered a Northern European country–those are more like the Scandinavian countries plus Finland, typically. Apparently the Dutch share some cultural aspects with them. You’re going to have a pretty hard time with this and without a social circle I think your best bet might actually online or, even better, getting involved in some sort of club or activity that you already do and then use that as a springboard to start a social circle.


  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Ik zoek een club deze week ;)

  • Anna

    What’s the next language you’ll learn ?

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hahaha goed Idee :P

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Get used to associating the sounds and the words. The challenge compared to italian is that Spaniards tend to speak quickly and close their mouth while doing it more (depending on the dialect). Watching movies originally in Spanish with subtitles *in Spanish* will help a lot. Otherwise, lots of practice speaking with people of course ;)

  • Gijs van der Giessen

    Hoi Benny!
    Ik denk inderdaad dat Nederlanders erg georganiseerd zijn. Ik merk dat ook, en ik ben zelf een Nederlander. Ik ben van nature helemaal niet georganiseerd, maar dat is als kind me door mijn moeder gewoon ingestampt xD Ik denk dat de moeite met de taal niet zal komen omdat Nederlanders onvriendelijk of niet open voor je zouden zijn. Nederlanders zijn in mijn ogen best een vriendelijk volk. (Alhoewel we wel soms een stelletje lompe boeren kunnen zijn). Maar ik denk dat het inderdaad komt omdat Nederlanders van elkaar verwachten dat ze overal duidelijke afspraken over maken. Je kan in Nederland moeilijk zeggen: Hey laten we volgende week is een keer wat gaan doen ofzo. Want dan kan je de vraag: “wanneer dan precies?” terug verwachten. Dat is ook waarom Nederlanders vaak geen tijd hebben… Ze hebben met iedereen al afspraken gemaakt en vinden het vervelend dingen af te moeten zeggen! Maar wel goed dat je Nederlands leert man, veel mensen zijn niet geïnteresseerd in zo`n kleine taal.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Dank je wel Alice!