Hot TakesMiscellanousReflections

Language is easy. Culture is difficult.

By October 26, 2022November 1st, 2022No Comments

The process of learning a language is really the process of acquiring a new culture.

It’s not “how to say X.” It’s “how to convey this feeling/meaning?” The difference is nuanced, but it makes a huuuge difference.

For instance, you don’t say “I want to eat cake” in Japanese.

You instead usually say, ケ-キが食べたい — which roughly means, “cake induces the desire to eat (in me)” or “the cake is eat-wanting” (however you want to phrase it).

The cake is the SUBJECT of the sentence, not the object!

In Japanese, as opposed to English, it’s acceptable to attribute a kind of “life” or “intention” to inanimate objects, which we don’t usually do in English.

Another case in point: in a language exchange recently, I remarked in English, “I learned some new concepts!” And then I asked, how do I convey that in Japanese?

The answer: the Japanese simply say (if translated), “I became wiser.”

We both joked about how saying something like that in English would be overly dramatic, and that maybe the Japanese people are always low-key sarcastic, etc.

Or take the “passive voice” in Japanese. There are different words for “receiving” something as a favor or handout (which places you below the giver), versus a tribute (placing you above the giver).

These are not simply linguistic lessons — they’re cultural lessons.

A lot of language learners get frustrated with languages over time, seemingly confounded at all the “exceptions” and “complexities.”

People who see a language simply as a large set of grammar rules and vocabulary to learn, are missing one of the most critical aspects that make the difference between being “familiar” with a language versus being “fluent.”

They chalk it up to “a language gene” or talent, while the actual cause of the lack of progress is more often than not the methodology they’ve chosen. It’s also less fun to learn when the method itself is painful, which means people spend less time on it, thus putting fluency even further out of reach.

Think about how you learned your native language, and how you use it on a daily basis. Do you have any idea what the grammar rules in your mother tongue are?

Think about translations — or rather, how bad and unreliable they usually are. How many times do people ask “hey how do you say xyz in your language?” — hoping for a direct translation — and the legit answer is, “we don’t actually say that, but we can convey the same meaning by saying…

It’s not possible to become fluent in a language unless you immerse yourself in native, natural content. Lots and lots of input.

By consuming native content, you get to acquire the language and the cultural context at the same time — which is how it should be, because that’s how children learn too. They get corrected by elders for saying things that are disrespectful or awkward, even if they’re “accurate.”

Hence the title — languages are easy, cultures are difficult!

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