Guten Tag! Hallo! Hi! You just greeted someone in German, but which one of these (if any) would you use to greet a professor you are meeting for the first time, as opposed to hailing your best friend?
Much can be learned about different cultural contexts through their language and you might be surprised to find out how much language is directly related to culture. Culture not only determines how to navigate social situations, but it also shapes your point of view. The same language you use with your friends and family is not appropriate with your boss at work.
Understanding cultural context clues us in on how to address others, when certain kinds of language aren’t appropriate and how to approach and respond in different situations. Otherwise, it makes it difficult to understand and communicate with others. Communication is not as straightforward as we would generally like to think.
Language vs. Cultural Context
Language meanings vary from place to place. Even Standard English varies in use amongst its native users. A word like “hush” which is essentially a harsh command to be quiet in the United States of America, is a soothing, calming word in the Caribbean, likely to be followed by some affection – a hug or a kiss to the forehead. Without cultural context, these differences can create confusion for the language learner. The American will always be surprised and confused at a Jamaican lovingly comforting their child while saying something like “hush my baby, mommy loves you.”
Japanese Culture and Language
One of the most obvious examples of this is the Japanese, as their cultural formalities are rooted in their language structure, making it less direct than English. Japanese heavily rely on “feeling the air” or “reading the room” to interpret what is being said. They even have a word for those who can’t pick up on subtleties. Kuuki Yomenai literally means “can’t read the air.” For example, Japanese culture finds it rude to say “no” outright.
Their responses will often seem as if they are avoiding answering a question. You might hear responses that translate to “It’s a bit [inconvenient]…”, “Maybe”, “I’ll try”, or “I’ll see.” All these most likely mean no, but learning to read the room will help you to easily understand what is really being said. There are also specific ways to answer the phone. You can say moshi moshi (I’m going to talk now) when answering or receiving a phone call, but only if the call is from a friend or family member. For more formal calls, you can answer hai (yes), followed by your company name or your last name.
Korean Culture and Language
Koreans also have a more structured way of speaking and it highly depends on the person and situation. Generally speaking, phrases like “I love you” have many variations and are not as commonly used as in the West. Older generations, or even parents to kids, may never say it at all.
The informal (and most common) way to say “I love you” in the Korean language is saranghae. Couples and sometimes even close friends will express their love for each other this way. But, if you’re talking to your parents you say saranghaeyo, which is a respectful way to say “I love you” that also expresses gratitude for all they do. There is even a more formal way to say “I love you”, which is saranghamnida, but it is not often used as it is too formal for most situations. One phrase! Three variations!
Dutch Culture and Language
When talking to Dutch, one of the most commonly used Dutch phrases might be Ik heb geen tijd (I’ve got no time), as they are planners and incredibly organised, detailing their days in diaries and planners. So, if you respond to say “we should meet up sometime!” it will likely never take place until you propose a time and place, days or weeks in advance, and have them confirm that they can meet based on their highly detailed agendas.
These are only a few examples but it shows that while it is important that one learns the foundation of any language, that is only the beginning. If you ever need to travel to the country of your second language, be sure to do some research beforehand to understand the cultural cues, and if you have a private language tutor, ask him or her what are the most common misconceptions of foreigners visiting their country.