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Language, culture and context are intertwined

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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.

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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