Learning a New Language is Learning a New Culture

“As they walked along the bushy trail, José explained that to master the intricacies of their language, Paul first had to understand their culture.” José to Paul, page 60, Blood for Freedom.”

In my book, the main character Paul embarks on a two-year journey to Guatemala to do missionary work in a remote village. After arriving, he immediately notices the stark contrast between the natives’ lives there from his comfortable place in the United States. In Guatemala, the people live simply, and although they are under constant surveillance by an authoritarian military, they still continue to live as if such people were merely a part of the background.

Nevertheless, their influence remains strong. It became apparent that while the younger generations are keen to speak Spanish, the older ones prefer to stick to their native tongue—cautious over any foreign visitor.

Paul then meets a man named José, who speaks Spanish, his native Mayan tongue, and English. After getting to know José, Paul asks for help learning the native language so he can converse better with other natives in the town.

After contemplating his request, José allows it. However, before their lessons, he gives Paul an insight into what it takes to learn their language, which is first understanding their culture.

In a way, it makes sense. When we learn a new language, we are also opening ourselves up to the evolution of their language. This learning experience ranges from technical linguistics to accents and cultural heritage. If learning a new language was as easy as learning a new dance step, anyone could do it.

In short, learning a new language is very much like learning a new culture as well. Constant revision, memorization, and practice may help with the basics. Still, when it comes down to mastering the language, it must first come from a place of understanding and openness.

by J. P. Piché

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