APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

Why Culture Is One of the Best Foreign Language Teachers

By Dr. Karolina Kopczyński
Faculty Member, School of Arts, Humanities and Education 

Language is a vital part of any culture. When you learn a foreign language, you learn more about the values, beliefs, traditions and customs of a particular region or country. Also, understanding the arts, food, celebrations, music, and daily traditions of a culture helps you appreciate the beauty of another language and serve as a motivation to learn more of that foreign language. 

“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things but learning another way to think about things.” – Flora Lewis, American journalist

Learning the Colloquialisms and Slang of a Foreign Language

When you’re learning about another’s culture or being a part of that culture when you’re living there, even for a week, you are commonly exposed to local colloquialisms, such as slang and other idiomatic expressions. Only in Mexico, for instance, will people speak about “chile, mole y pozole,” which are Mexican dishes. In translation, this expression means talking about everything and implies variety.

Another example of colloquial language is that when people take an afternoon nap in Spain, they take “una siesta,” but in México, it’s called “se echan un coyotito.” Similarly, who would know that when you use the expression “pata del alma” (soul paw), you’re talking about your best friend in Peru?

In addition, people from Costa Rica (known as Ticos) love using “tuanis” (nice, great) to refer to awesome people and things. When you’re hanging out with Spanish speakers, traveling to Spanish-speaking countries and living in a Spanish-speaking country, it is definitely beneficial to know some slang.

“You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.” – Czech proverb

Understanding the Vocabulary of Festive Days and Celebrations

Regularly celebrated events are another way to understand a language. For instance, most people know about “El Día de Los Muertos,” (The Day of the Dead), commonly celebrated on November 1 and 2. However, parts of Mexico start their celebrations on October 31.

From this traditional event, you can learn about the Mexican perspective on death and how people honor and remember those who passed away. Also, there are words traditionally associated with The Day of the Dead:

  • La muerte (the death)
  • El esqueleto (the skeleton)
  • La ofrenda (the offering)
  • El pan de muerto (the bread of the dead)
  • La calavera (the skull)
  • El altar (the altar)
  • La flor de muerto (the flower of the dead)
  • El papel picado (the chopped paper)
  • La calavera Catrina (the elegant skull)

Spain has events similar to The Day of the Dead. Día de todos Los Santos (All Saints Day) is celebrated on November 1. It is a festive day when families go to cemeteries to pay tribute to their loved ones and friends.

Días de los Fieles Difuntos (All Souls’ Day) is celebrated on November 2, but it is not as widely celebrated as All Saints Day. But it is fascinating to learn how a similar holiday is celebrated differently in different countries. 

Learning New Words from the Traditional Cuisine of Another Country

Food is probably one of the best language teachers, especially when you’re trying new dishes or having more than one serving. When you’re having Mexican tacos “a su gusto” (to your taste), you’ll need to expand your vocabulary to be able to have your tacos in the way you prefer.

Foods like Mexican tacos, Salvadorean pupusas, Puerto Rican mofongo, Argentinian chimichurri and Spanish paella are all made with a variety of ingredients. Consequently, if you are curious about what ingredients go into these traditional foods or want to make them yourself, you will naturally expand your vocabulary as a result.

“A foreign language is more easily learned in the kitchen than at school.”– German proverb

Picking Up Vocabulary from Song Lyrics

Another fantastic way to learn a foreign language is through music. Of course, some people enjoy the rhythm of foreign music, while others prefer to sing or listen to lyrics even if a song is in another language they don’t understand. 

From one song, for instance, you could learn over 50 new words in another language. Imagine that! Ten songs could supply you with over 500 new words. 

“The whole art of language consists in being understood.” – Confucius, Chinese philosopher

Learning a foreign language through the culture associated with it can be accomplished in many ways: traveling, living in the area, or speaking with neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family members. You can learn many new words through different celebrations, especially while you’re eating and having fun! 

About the Author

Dr. Karolina Kopczyński is a native of Poland, and her passion is learning foreign languages and their cultures. She completed her study abroad program in Oviedo, Spain, and she also lived and studied in Russia, Mexico, and Greece. After learning nine languages, she is now learning Arabic.

Dr. Kopczyński obtained her M.A.T. in Spanish and ESOL from the School for International Training, VT. She also completed master’s degrees from the University of Jaén in Spain and the University Iberoamericana in Puerto Rico in Applied Linguistics in Teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language and Formation of Professors of Spanish as a Foreign Language. Furthermore, Dr. Kopczyński earned a M.A. in psychology, and she is currently working on her M.Ed. in Learning and Technology. Dr. Kopczyński completed her Ed.D. from the University of Phoenix in Curriculum and Instruction. Recently, she received the 2021 Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award from the University. She is also a co-advisor of the Spanish Club.

Dr. Kopczyński presented at the Teaching Excellence Summit on the Implementation of Technology in Spanish Online Classes to increase participation. She has also presented at Northeast OER Summit about Interactive Tools to Engage Participation and MaFla about Podcasts for Presentational Communication and Communicative Tools for Interpretative Communication in Online Spanish Classes.

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