You Aren’t Fluent Until You Understand the Culture

Not Fluent Until You Understand the CultureEverything you know about the English language is wrong.

You’ve been neglecting an important component of your language studies over the past few years and it is affecting your ability to speak English correctly.

Until you address this problem English will be remain a foreign language to you and will never become a second language.

Language isn’t enough

Let me tell you a story about an American named Sean.

Sean goes to Brazil on business and starts studying Portuguese. After three months of study he makes his first trip to Brazil.

His Portuguese is pretty good for someone who only studied for three months. He has a high level of vocabulary that surprises his friends. His pronunciation is also surprisingly good. Brazilians find him easy to understand.

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However, something strange happens whenever he talks with his friends.  Sean is a good listener and often shows understanding by saying things like, “I see” and “right.”  These words are simple enough for him to translate, so Sean starts saying “Vejo” and “direita” to show understanding of his Brazilian friends. His friends think that he is strange for saying these things, but they just attribute it to him being foreign.

One day Sean meets with a female executive that his company was doing business with. After introductions the woman starts explaining what kind of services her company provides. To show understanding, Sean says “gotcha” but translates it as “pego você.” (I hook up with you) Needless to say, the female executive, a married woman was shocked that he would say something like that.

Language is a tool

Luckily for Sean there was someone there who understood what he meant to say and he was able to explain the situation. But what if there was nobody there to bridge that cultural gap? How would the cross-cultural misunderstanding been resolved?

Stories like this happen all the time. Students learn foreign languages at school or by themselves in a way that is sterile of culture. Without understanding the culture that is underneath the language you can’t say that you’re fluent in that language.

Think of a language like a tool that needs to be plugged in. In order for it to work properly you have to put it in the right socket. Different countries have different outlets, so you might need an adaptor for the tool to work properly. If you try putting it in the wrong outlet, the tool might blow up.

Unfortunately, many people learn a language thinking they can plug their tool into every outlet, only to find out later that they need an adaptor. In order to be understood you need to have the right adaptor. You need to adapt your language to match the culture you are speaking to, and not think that the way you say things back home will work abroad.

What’s the difference? 

The first thing that you need to be aware of is the different ways that people greet each other. Hellos are almost like a ritual, with many ways to be performed. You’ll never offend anyone by saying “Hello,” but you won’t impress them either. In English there are dozens of ways to greet someone, ranging from the informal “What’s crackin’?” to the more formal “How’ve you been?”

Saying goodbye is another part of this ritual. Depending on the relationship you have with the person and when you intend to see them next you will need to vary your approach. When saying goodbye to a friend you might say, “Catch you later bro,” or if you want to be more formal you can say, “I wish you well.”

Hellos and goodbyes are important to mention because every interaction has them. But what about the rest of the conversation? It is important to realize that different cultures have different styles of communication. In general, Americans are very direct and will go straight to the point of the conversation. Americans tend to be less concerned with building a personal relationship than they are with the person’s ability to get the job done.

For Brazilians, his approach is quite different and may seem a little strange. Most Brazilians won’t do business with someone that they don’t have a personal relationship with, and will spend an entire meeting just getting to know someone without talking about business. Brazilians also tend to be indirect in their communication style. Instead of directly asking for something they will tell a story that explains why they need that thing and then softly ask for it.

The style that each culture has for communication doesn’t make them better or worse than another culture’s; it just means that it’s different. It is important to recognize and accept the differences that exist between cultures and try to be open to these differences.

To fully understand a language, you need to not only understand the words that are used, but the emotions behind them. It’s not enough to learn from a book and expect to be able to effectively communicate with speakers of that language. There are customs and rituals that have to be learned, and mindsets that must be understood.

The only way you will learn about the differences between cultures is by exposing yourself to them. Go study abroad, take a vacation to a foreign country, and make friends with foreigners in your city. Don’t be afraid of embarrassing yourself; its part of the process and you’ll be able to laugh about it later!

What cultural misunderstandings have you experienced while traveling?

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  • Fantastic article, and I love the example of “Sean” in Brazil. This is also why I try to discourage my students from direct translation – “What’s up?” doesn’t mean “O que está acima?” 😉 I can often tell when I’m talking to a Brazilian who has studied in an English-speaking country, because they tend to use some more colloquial expressions like “hang out” or saying “When I got home” instead of “When I arrived at my house.”

    I always try to eavesdrop on conversations on the street, on the bus, etc. so that I can pick up a few more examples of phrasing used by native Portuguese speakers. For better or worse, I’ve picked up a few, um, expressions “do interior” thanks to my husband – my class cracked up one day when they heard me say “OXENTE!”

  • Josh

    Thanks for your comment Shayna, I’m glad you liked the article.

    I’ve been a lot more careful about the way I greet Brazilians in English, staying away from slang like “What’s crackin’?” and “Wazzup?” They usually haven’t heard these expressions and it starts off the interaction with them being confused.

    There is a lot of fun to be had translating colloquial phrases from one language to another. ex: “Hey Chad why are you burning my film? You’re my friend, you should be breaking my branch” (Porque você esta queimando meu filme? Você é meu amigo, você deve quebrar meu galo.”

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