Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why You Can't Learn A Language At Home

As featured in our list of great places to learn languages, there is where you have to go if you want to learn languages. Though many well-read scholars will try to argue that they can learn everything they'll ever need from books and the internet, they're wrong. Here's why:

Sometimes there are no words for it.
Culture and language are inextricably bound. A language develops with a culture. As our favourite linguistic anecdote, courtesy of Edward Sapir, explained: Eskimos have thousands of words for snow. As incorrect as this is, you can understand the point he was trying to make. You can't take the culture out of a language, just as you can't take the cheese out of a cheeseburger.

Concepts exist in languages due to both culture and history. History certainly shapes a language. The English language is interesting because for many years, England was Europe's whipping boy that was conquered, almost on a daily basis, by other civilisations. Then, following years of being Europe's bitch, England got sick of it and decided to take the English language on tour and create a global empire.

The same can be said for Spanish, which thanks to some eager sailors, pretty much spans the entire continent of South America, with the exception of Brazil, where they speak Portuguese. The French language was spread in the same way. Aeons ago we did a post on how European colonialism affected the spread of languages, which shows that you can spread a language very quickly if you have a big army.

Would you really want to stay at home?
There are certain things you can't learn entirely from a book. Life lessons, how to satisfy a woman sexually and how to speak a foreign language. Granted, you can supplement your language learning by reading their literature, watching their films and listening to their music, but you can never truly understand the language if you've never met the people, lived their life and immersed yourself in their culture.

There are so many nuances in languages that are nearly impossible to explain without having seen the things they refer to first-hand. Even between British English and American English there are many lexical differences due to the difference in cultures. Most Brits are unfamiliar with strip malls in the same way that many Americans are a little confused if someone lives in a semi-detached house.

The day-to-day language is rarely covered in books. How many Spaniards know that WhatsApp got its name from "what's up?", the colloquial expression? If you really want to know the language that people are ashamed to write down, you have to go into the streets, frequent the bars and get involved with the culture that shares a bed with the language you want to learn.