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How To Learn About A Culture Without Knowing Its Language?

How To Learn About A Culture Without Knowing Its Language?
Photo by Marco Zuppone / Unsplash

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 ordering your meals the way 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. Can You Learn About A Culture Without Learning Their Language?

Yes, you CAN! While there are many ways to do this, there are three broad methods in learning about a culture, which are:

  • Research
  • Observe
  • Get Involved

It's undeniable that language is essential to understanding culture. Still, language acquisition can be complex and not a good use of time if you're only 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. For example, the English language itself is reliant on its local context. A non-native speaker might have trouble understanding South African, Irish or even Singaporean English if only exposed to American English. Though language learning will undoubtedly 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 language is vital in learning a new culture, many other elements can help you gain knowledge about the new culture. Of the many aspects that make up a culture, two essential areas can help a cultural newbie better understand and adapt to the new culture.

Social Structures

Another critical component is the social structures. Social structures are how a group chooses to organise themselves and set rules to guide people's behaviour. The groups of people can be family, community, workplace or even a nation. The rules of conduct and organisation of the group can be formally or informally established. Social structures focus on the organisation of relationships. Some examples are the economic, legal, political, educational, healthcare systems, and many others on a macro level.

On a more micro level, it'll be the relationships between the various roles within the workplace. 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 specific individuals?
  • How are the decisions executed?
  • What are the undertones within the group with regards to their relationships?

Understanding the social structures of the group will help you decipher the rules and principles that come along with them and 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 a note of their gestures, speech, facial expressions, 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 welcomed, acceptable or even offensive behaviour. You wouldn't want to offend someone and break relationships accidentally!

The Three Methods of Learning a Culture

There are many ways in which we can learn about a culture without knowing the language. There are three methods: Research, Observation and Getting Involved.

Research

The first method is through research. Reach out to your preferred search engine and start entering keywords associated with the new culture.

Many expatriates, travellers, students, bloggers, vloggers and podcasters willingly share 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 interactions.

When on a business trip, tune in to the local news channel in your hotel room or skim through their local papers. Once on a trip to Nepal, I flipped through a local English newspaper and noticed that the Nepali and Malaysian economic relationship were on the front page. To my surprise, such news never made it into the Malaysian newspapers. Reading the local newspaper gave insight into the importance of the economic relationships with Malaysia and how the locals regard Malaysians.

A few observations and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning lead to truth. Alexis Carrel

Observation

Observation is one of the most powerful skills anyone could have. While observation may seem simple, there are many layers and nuances to this skill. Skilled observation involves

  • Being present
  • Staying silent
  • Active Listening
  • Making mental notes
  • Reflecting
  • Being curious
  • Sifting between what has happened and your personal biases, interpretations, assumptions, projections of the situation.

These observations can provide much insight into 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 came to realise they were the residue from betel 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.

Get Involved

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 around. 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. I enjoy going to the local supermarket to see different food products and try out distinct flavours.

Participate in a local event, such as a seminar, networking event, music concert, art exhibition, or the local theatres. Find the local hobby group and join their meetups if you have a hobby, such as dancing, hiking, yoga, or even bird watching. There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer for a cause you feel deeply for and give back to the local community.

Getting involved will allow you 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 essential 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.

Note: The original post was published on Culture Spark Global on the 10th of June 2020. This article has now been merged and republished here.