May 25, 2017
– Mom, look! Däbbi!
I saw my 10 year-old son accompany his utterance with a gesture I found unfamiliar. “Maybe that’s another Finnish word I don’t know yet”, I told myself. Later on, I found out that Finns don’t know it either. Däbbi was originally a dance move and is now a buzzword born in a specific culture – has now become widely used in his class culture – and by the young Norwegian prince Sverre Magnus – since he and his classmates all enjoy doing the same ‘Däbbi’ gesture together.
It has been nearly two years since we moved from China and settled down in Finland. The language shock one encounters when learning that työ turns into töihin has faded out gradually. Time and effort bear fruit. My boy speaks fluent Finnish already.
As we often spend time together learning Finnish, I noticed that he is quick to learn Finnish expressions, which have clear counterparts in Chinese. One example is: “Close the lamp, Mom” (in Finnish: Sulje äiti lamppu). In this expression, he is clearly influenced by his mother tongue, since in Chinese, the same verb is used for actions such as ‘close the door’ and ‘turn off the light’. For the differences of this kind, he learns quickly, too, through understanding the difference from his mother tongue. The difficult part comes from those expressions for which he cannot find parallels or references in his mother tongue.
In the beginning, this anxious mother simply checked the boy’s understanding of Finnish texts by having him explain the texts in a mixture of ‘Finnish Chinese’. Soon, I realized the mistake and modified the way. My son is now guided towards an understanding of the key differences in the two languages or cultures whenever he encounters a tricky word or phrase. His Finnish learning process is evolving from a purely language-oriented process to language acquisition aided by a comparative study of the two languages and the two cultures. This proves to be a much better way to learn a new language.
Language and culture are uniquely intermingled. In English, the phrase ‘Don’t teach your grandma to suck eggs’ has a perfect equivalent in Chinese, only the Chinese version has nothing to do with grandma, but an axe. The English idiom ‘love me, love my dog’ has also a Chinese equivalent that has nothing to do with dogs, but instead refers to crows, a type of bird. Much more time and effort are required for the comparative learning process, but it pays off. It contains joys brought not only by learning both languages, but more by exploring the culture.
Language study alone might cause tiredness, but by studying the cultural background and its related stories, the learner is taken to another culture, which is where the ultimate value of language learning lies. This experience kindles, fuels and sustains an enthusiasm for language learning.
My experience of learning with my son and his tremendous achievements and passion for both languages and cultures made me ponder the profession of translation and language training. Qualified language professionals have a passion for language, but more so they have a passion for the culture in which the language is born.
After all, translators translate and teachers teach not only languages, but to a large extent, culture. Language with a deep cultural context enables meaningful communication between two parties.
Tips for incorporating culture into learning a foreign language:
Lucy is an expert in the Chinese language ja develops our Cloud9 cloud service and translator teams.