July 27, 2013 | Yiddish

Foreign-Language Study: Window Into Another Culture?

I think that to learn much about culture, you actually have to study culture.

Throughout my life, I have heard how studying a language is a window into another culture. In case this website doesn’t make it completely apparent, I am completely enamored of the study of language.

However, I have never felt that foreign-language study in itself offered that much of a window into culture. This idea, oft repeated, seems simplistic. There are of course clues about a culture embedded in its language, but they are, in my opinion, relatively minor to the uninitiated, unless you also turn your attention to a complementary study of history and art and politics and geography and so on of the country or countries where that language is spoken.

Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex

Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex

In recent days I have been reflecting on this in terms of Yiddish. I am reading Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (2005) by Michael Wex, whose writing is brilliant, playful, humane, intellectual. I bought Born to Kvetch in order to enrich my study of Yiddish, but it is apparent to me on every page how much more I would get out of this book, and Yiddish, if I were more familiar with Jewish culture.

“In order to frame things properly,” writes Wex in his introduction, “…we have to start with a look at Judaism in general, and those features of Jewish life and faith that were crucial to the development of Yiddish. If the first chapter seems to talk more about the Bible and Talmud than bupkes and tukhes, it’s because the Bible and Talmud are to Yiddish what plantations are to the blues. The only difference is that blues left the plantations behind, while Yiddish—try as it still sometimes does—never escaped from the Talmud.”

To be clear, I am pretty much equally ignorant about all religions. I have studied religious history cursorily in the larger context of secular history, but religious studies are not something that attracts me. Language attracts me.

Cultural studies in general attract me, too—but my point is that I do not think language study alone gets you to any degree of sophistication about culture. Language may open a window to a different world, but you actually have to then climb through that window and look around. By acquiring foreign-language skills, you can read foreign literature, and foreign newspapers, and talk to people from other places, and travel with greater ease, and so on—thus gaining direct, unmediated access to experiences beyond those you could ever have in your own language.

And all that requires more work. Fun work, but work nonetheless. And I have to confess: I do enjoy the purely technical aspects of language study, largely independent of culture. I love grammar books. The grammatical layers of a language have a pull for me that is almost erotic in nature.

It’s not that I don’t care about culture, too. I do! I just wouldn’t want to oversimplify or overstate what learning imperative mode in a new language gets you. On average, Americans are not as sensitive as they could be to the nuances of the worlds that reside in other words.

Comments (3)

josé luiz serafini • Posted on Wed, July 31, 2013 - 2:57 pm EST

Maybe that´s a truth one ought not to utter loud and wide (“aos quatro ventos”, to the four winds, we say in Portuguese), but just whisper… For most of us do tend to believe that mere acquisition of language (the “spirit of the language”) leads to knowledge of culture and intimacy, automatically, intuitively, in some magic way.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, August 31, 2013 - 3:29 pm EST

Language acquisition is definitely magic to me. I am still trying to understand better the nature of that magic for me and why I feel about it the way I do. It is a love relationship, for sure, but why? There are so many layers to it!

Irena Pasvinter • Posted on Mon, July 14, 2014 - 6:59 am EST

“Language may open a window to a different world, but you actually have to then climb through that window and look around. ” I very much agree, but it’s easier to climb through the window, than over the wall. “Born to Kvetch” has been in my reading queue for a while now. From your description it looks like I’m going to like it. For me cultural aspects are the main attraction when learning a language and technical aspects are secondary.

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