Navigating Social Customs in Other Languages

One of the biggest fallacies that I encounter among people trying to learn a particular language is trying to pick and choose what they learn. Some say, things like “I only want to know how to make basic conversation and colloquial things”. While that’s all well and good, you should be aware that language is never so simple. In my opinion, much of these kinds of beliefs stem from a subtle assumption that other languages work more or less the same way as a person’s first language.

That’s not exactly a good way to think about a foreign langauge, because it’s rarely ever a one-to-one relationship for everything. Even for related languages like Spanish and Portuguese, there are things that don’t always cross over. You can’t assume that Portuguese is “a different version” of Spanish, because not all words in Spanish have the same meaning or have cognate in Portuguese. And geographical proximity doesn’t account for anything either, as in the case of Indian languages, where there are 1500+ distinct languages, with varying degrees of mutual intelligbility (though by and large there is very little if any at all).

One of the biggest things about language is its intimate ties with culture, and how that translates in and out of different languages. There are certain cultural norms associated with different languages, which need to be upheld and respected. Obviously, one should exercise discretion, because sometimes, social customs can be extreme or ridiculous. But, usually, that’s not a call for us outsiders to make.

For example, in many Indian languages, it is widely considered inappropriate, rude, or inauspicious to discuss death, especially in the presence of the elderly or the sick, because it could be misinterpreted as a bad omen. This is not that complicated and is fairly easy to understand and get behind. But, what some learners of Hindi or other languages may not understand is that it precludes certain types of expressions, such as “I’m gonna kill you” or “You’re so dead”. In English, they don’t really mean anything, as they’re usually just threatening someone with the idea that there will be consequences to a particular action, not that they will actually kill someone. However, this is not the case in many Indian languages. Not only do these phrases not exist in direct translation, attempting to do so will result in a very different response. It may be interpreted as an actual threat, and even if it isn’t, it’s seen as poor manners or rude to say such a thing.

In a more complex example, Korean has an intricate system of honorifics and formal versus informal speaking. Certain words have particular forms that can only be used in deference to someone of higher social status. For example, my professor I’m meeting for the first time may ask “이름은 뭐야?” (Ireum-eun mweo-ya?). This is simply, “What is your name?”. The word 이름 (ireum) means “name”, but I would not use this word or even the same phrase to ask my professor’s name. Instead, I would say “교수님 성함은 어떻게 되세요?” (Gyo-su-nim seong-ham-eun eotteoh-ge doe-se-yo?). This literally translates to roughly “How is the professor (that I address) called?” 성함 (seong-ham) also means “name”, but it is the honorific form of the word. My professor can use 이름 with me, since they are socially above me, but I have to use 성함 with them. To do otherwise would be seen as too familiar, and even rude.

The Korean social hierarchy is something that not all Korean learners may immediately understand or even be aware of. But, in the context of Korean-speaking society, it is important to address such hierarchies, or you may face criticism and even anger for expressing unintended disrespect. For a language like Korean, it makes very little sense to ask only for colloquial expressions, since most Koreans will pay close attention (unconscious or otherwise) to the dynamics of social status in their everyday speech.

Whether the social customs that are ingrained in a language are complicated or not, it is important to understand such things. For those who learn in a classroom, the teacher may simply give you only phrases that fit in with the social conventions of the language, making it unnecessary for you to know at all. That can be a good and a bad thing, since while it promotes fitting in with the social norms, but doesn’t encourage synthesis of sentences, as opposed to using set, memorized phrases. Self-studiers should be mindful any kind of social conventions or rules of the language, rather than simply gleaning knowledge from the dictionary and grammar books. The best way to do so is engaging in media (particularly television) in that language, to grasp how the language is used in real life.

I hope this post was helpful in your studies in foreign language, and feel free to leave comments and suggestions for other posts. Don’t forget to share this post on social media, too!

My Article From Italki: “How You Can Speed Up Your Language Learning”

Here’s the article that I wrote for Italki, and in case you’re interested, you can check out my teacher profile here: Merry Christmas to you all!

Many language learners have a great deal of difficulty trying to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of vocabulary words from the lists in their textbooks. Teaching experts call this stage of learning rote. This means that the information is remembered, word for word, and the very definition is burned into your brain. However, this information, while retained, is not understood. The goal of learning a language is to understand words and what a person is trying to say. The stage of learning that the ideal language learner should aspire to is called application. Application suggests that you comprehend and correlate acquired knowledge with new material, draws conclusions, and synthesizes information independently.

To apply this to language learning, we need to show that languages can be correlated. If you look at the linguistic map below, you can see the gradations of Romance languages throughout Europe. Ibero-Romance languages (in green), such as Portuguese and Spanish, have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other Romance languages. However, Catalan, spoken in northeastern Spain, is a Gallo-Romance language. It shares many features with Spanish, as well as with Occitan (a language spoken in southwestern France, near the border with Spain) and French. Here, we see green fade into the blue areas in France, signifying the correlation between languages in that area. And we see this in the languages themselves, too. 

In Spanish, the word for “language” is la lengua, in Catalan it’s la llengua, and in French, it’s la langue. Ignoring the fact that they sound alike (because, as we’ll see, that is not a reliable guide) Even more curious is that all three also happen to mean “tongue.” And to top it off, they’re all feminine nouns! So, with these clues in mind, we can reasonably conclude that these words are cognates, words of common origin and of similar meaning.

So, you may be wondering, “What does this all mean?” Well, it’s the key to accelerating your learning! You may not realize it, but when you start learning a language, your brain instantly tries to link it to ideas and concepts you already know, to be able to store it more easily. The first mistake that some people make is assuming that they have to start completely from scratch in order to learn a new language. But that cheats you out of an incredibly easy way to learn! Your brain recognizes that two words may mean the same thing, but are from different languages. This separates the two words in your long-term storage, especially if they sound different. I myself used my knowledge of Spanish to expedite my Italian learning, and that helped immensely in getting all the vocabulary down.

In my guides to Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, which you can download at, I make frequent mention of parallels between Spanish, Italian, French, and other languages to help speed up learning. This is very helpful in the analytical part of my teaching method. By helping my students correlate things they already know, the information is retained in the long-term, and it makes language learning easier and more fun. Learning a language should not be a drag and endless trudging through vocabulary lists.

If you know Portuguese, and you’re learning Italian, exploit it. Not only are words similar, languages often have very similar structures. For example, in Portuguese, the imperfect subjunctive of the verb ser looks incredibly similar to those of the Italian verb essere. Take the phrase, “As if it were a dream.” Como se fosse um sonho (Portuguese) and Come se fosse un sogno (Italian) sound nearly identical.

I know you might be thinking that if you try to correlate words all the time and find cognates, you’ll start mixing up languages altogether. But there are a couple of things that you can use to to work against this. First, is that your brain, as mentioned before, instantly recognizes the similarities as well as the differences. All that’s left for you to do is to practice the vocabulary in context. Second, is practicing languages at different times. The temporal separation helps your brain process the languages separately, and keep them from mixing with each other. Study Italian at night, and Spanish in the daytime.

I hope that this was helpful in providing a strategy for learning a language! Remember: many languages are related, so you should exploit any links that your target language has to one that you already know.


Romance Languages in Europe in 20 C. AD. 2009. Wikimedia Commons. By Fert. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <>.

Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD by Koryakov Yuri Serg!o, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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