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Why Language Is the Best Way to Learn about Culture, History and Human Experience

Learning a language will undoubtedly be an advantage in our careers and help us enjoy our travels, however language is far more than a tool for communication. One of my teachers at university described the study of language as the most finely-contoured map of the world available. When he said this, I think he meant that language can tell us so much about the culture, history and human experience of the people who speak it. When we learn a new language, or when we simply explore languages we know in more depth, we gain insights into how speakers think, feel, and understand the world.

Every language has its own features that can tell us about the culture of its speakers, and the social behaviours and customs of that culture. Some languages have different ways of addressing people depending on their age or the level of formality of a situation, while others have words for concepts that don’t exist in most languages, such as the German Schadenfreude, which means pleasure that comes from someone else’s bad luck, or the Japanese wabi-sabi, which means the beauty of imperfection. British English is known for its use of sarcasm, irony, puns and wordplay to create a sense of humour that can feel original and different, and can also be difficult to understand at first for speakers of other languages.

In each case, language tells us something particular about the world view and values of the people who use it.

Language can tell us a lot about a region’s history. As language evolves over time, we can see the way it is influenced by factors like migration, trade, war, religion, media and technology. When we look at English, we can see words borrowed from Latin, Greek, French, Arabic, Chinese, German, and the Nordic languages among others, and these words can tell the stories of the contact Britain has had with different cultures or civilisations. By exploring the stories of the words we read or use, we might be able to trace the rise of industry, periods of religious or political turmoil, or developments in the citizen’s relation to the state.

Learning English is learning what people think or feel. When we read or listen to someone talk, we come to understand different perspectives, and can share something of someone else’s experience or feeling. This might mean reading Shakespeare and being taken through the whole range of emotions of the writer’s characters and perhaps even thinking about how some of these feelings relate to things that were happening in the age in which the writer lived. It could equally mean listening to a blues recording, or hip-hop performance, or simply reading or hearing the account of any person to understand their personal experience and circumstances and how they relate to our own lives.

To return to the metaphor at the start of this article, learning English can indeed be a map that guides us on a journey of discovery. It might lead us to find answers or simply to ask new questions as we come to understand more about others, ourselves, and the world in which we live.