For a lot of people learning a language is a bit of an empty vacuum.

You might be in a classroom at school, studying a language for a credit or some graduation requirement, but you really have no serious interest in the language and most of your time in class is spent thinking about other things.

Or maybe you have relocated to a new country and decide to learn the local language, only to realize that the project is a huge endeavor and you don’t really have any specific need or purpose in learning the language, other than being able to talk to people at the supermarket.

Without a context for learning a language, your interest can wane. Without a reference point for language acquisition it just becomes an academic exercise without any specific purpose.

Learning a language for the sake of learning a language is, for a lot of people, a road to disinterest.

I used to have this same problem.

When I was studying Japanese in high school and college, aside from thinking I should do it because my mother is from Japan (or thinking it might be easier than some language I had zero familiarity with), I didn’t really have any strong, overwhelming need or desire to learn the language.

But even more than that, I didn’t have a context in my daily life where learning the language became a path to a specific destination.

What is a language learning context?

When I talk about having a context for learning a language, I mean that there is some element in your life that reinforces the exercise of language study.

There is something you do or participate in on a consistent basis that is not actually a part of learning the language, but which provides a reference point towards, or an application of, the study of that language.

Some would argue that living in a place where the language is spoken provides context, and I used to think the same way.

Sure, it is a great opportunity when you are committed to learning the language — you can find yourself forced to communicate with people who can’t speak your native tongue — but is it really a strong context in the way that I am talking about?

When I was 22 years old and I worked at a Japanese restaurant in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I had a boss who was from Japan. She had been in the U.S. for at least a decade or two but she could barely speak any English.

I had a hard time figuring out how that could be since, at the time, I thought that being immersed was sort of the Holy Grail of language acquisition — a get language quick pill of sorts.   How could you live in a country and be surrounded by a language and not at least absorb a functional ability with it?

When I lived in Shanghai in 2005-2007, I saw a large number of non-Chinese people who had been in China for a decade or more but couldn’t say much more than a few phrases to order some food or take a taxi.

Again, this was baffling to me. I had never realized to what extent people could surround themselves in a cultural bubble devoid of any significant exposure to a new language which surrounded them 24/7.

I started to realize that, being immersed in a location wasn’t really a strong enough motivator for people to learn. It didn’t provide enough leverage for them to apply themselves. Even though they were physically in a new location they had created a lifestyle that didn’t have any context for them to learn the language.

On the other hand, I’ve seen examples of people who did not have any resources around them, but were able to really commit and devote themselves to the study of a language and develop amazing skill.

I wanted to understand why they were able to do this and how I could duplicate the effort myself.

What separated people who dedicated their time and energy to a language vs. those with the resources to do so who didn’t put in the effort?

And I started to see a trend.

8x your study

Several years back, when I was trying to study Japanese on my own, I came across an article on a website where the author talked about 5 tips for studying Japanese. Two of the things he mentioned have stuck with me since that time.

The first is #3 on his list where he says we should “8x” our study. This is a reference to how there are different speeds for CD’s and that the 8x player is able to process data at 8 times the speed of a 1x player. (This also tells you how old the article is …)

He used this as an example to explain how one could create opportunities through their day for increasing experience with a language — listening to the music, reading comics, listening to people on the radio, speaking with friends, translating pen pal letters, etc. Don’t just study in the classroom, he recommended, but always have exposure to a language in your daily routine.

This method can work well when you aren’t immersed in the language environment. And it was the first piece of the puzzle.

The other thing he talked about was exploring all of the areas associate with the culture of that language that interest you. In the example of Japanese you might be in to anime, or manga, or shoji or kendo or karate or flower arranging or whatever it is.  It is about finding something that you love about the culture to help maintain your interest.

This was the second piece of the puzzle. When I mention having a context for learning languages, I see that utilizing the power of cultural arts is the start of super-charging your language learning efforts.

But it would be several years later before I realized how these things were connected and what role cultural arts play in my own study of foreign languages.

Popular Culture

A lot of people get attached to popular culture (or “pop culture“) when they want to explore a new group of people or language.

Examples of pop culture are anime, or k-pop, j-pop, cosplay, drama shows, popular music or … well, basically anything that someone might stick on twitter. Y’know .. stuff the kids like. 😉

And sure, these are legitimate avenues to help you learn a language, but I’ve found a few specific pitfalls that occur when you approach language learning from the perspective of popular culture

1. Weird words

When you learn vocabulary or grammar through these pop culture methods you tend to learn a very stylized or specific use of the language.  You end up learning weird words and strange usage that will get you really weird looks from a large portion of the population.

I can’t tell you how many people seem to think that the way Naruto speaks is acceptable in daily use. (dame dattebayo!)  Or, in some cultures you might learn either the masculine or feminine way of talking, when you are not a part of that particular group of people.  This can lead to rather embarrassing situations.

2. You’re weird

When you tell people on the street “Hi! I’m really in to anime!” in Japan, they’ll just think you’re weird. And you kinda will be. I guess it’s the same as if someone came up to you in the street in the U.S. and said “Hi! I love Lady Gaga! Do you love Lady Gaga too??” (Before you say anything, this actually happened to my wife in China …)

If you want to have some sort of social acceptance, then why make yourself seem like a strange otaku (super fan) or a member of some bizarre pop-culture sub-set of society?  This might be okay for kids, but if you have any serious aspirations with a language then you have to look at it from a more balanced perspective.

3. Social context

And that leads us to the third pitfall of using pop culture as a language learning context. Who are you going to talk to?

You might have a group of friends with whom you share your passion with, but when you want to be a normal member of society in this new culture, what will you have to discuss or talk about?

The latest lessons you learned from Full Metal Alchemist are going to fall on deaf ears when you talk to that old lady who lives down the hall from you.

Traditional Culture

Which brings us to the other side of the culture coin — traditional culture. These are the parts of culture that are considered a fundamental part of the cultural identity for those people. (And no, Rain is not a fundamental part of Korean culture, no matter what you may believe.)

If we can use an American example (sorry for all you non-Americans out there), it would be something like Jazz music. Or the Old West. Or anything that we identify as being a part of our cultural heritage. Because that is the key word here: heritage.

Heritage (according to wikipedia) refers to something inherited from the past. And if you think about it, an ‘inheritance‘ is something that adds value to someone or some people. (Yes, I know Gundam adds a lot of value to your life, but can we stop with the pop culture references already?)

In countries and cultures that are a bit older than North America (by thousands of years, mind you), you can find some pretty substantive parts of their traditional cultural heritage.

When you connect with this part of a culture, then you are not just speaking to their deeper roots as a people, but you are also developing a much better appreciation and understanding of what their culture represents.

If you want to really know a people, then study what they find the most precious and important. And nothing is more important to people than their traditional cultural heritage.

So, what does that mean?

Traditional culture is very helpful for us to know more about a people, but how does that relate to learning languages?

Well, that is the 3rd piece of the puzzle

Practice as a path

To answer the question of how traditional culture actually applies to language learning, or how it helps you maintain an interest in language study, we have to look at the expression of culture and the practice of skills — specifically traditional cultural arts.

When I started to learn Chinese it was much different than my study of Japanese because it came from a perspective of someone who wanted to understand and develop skill in a cultural art — wushu (martial arts).

Chinese became an avenue through which I could explore my interest and love of Chinese martial arts. It wasn’t just an end unto itself.

Practicing a cultural art also has a few other benefits.

Besides those it shares with pop-culture enthusiasts (motivation, context and enjoyment), traditional cultural arts have an advantage over pop-culture in a few specific ways.

A Cultural Connection

The first big advantage is that, by virtue of you spending the time to learn a cultural art that represents a people’s identity (and not their current fads or trends), members of that culture will feel that you are truly trying to understand them and be a part of their society.

Their opinion of you and who you are changes. You aren’t perceived either as someone who is only there to study for some class credit, or someone who is in to a weird cartoon culture.  You are seen as someone who is investing time and energy to really know them.

I have a friend named Adam who lives in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province. He’s originally from Scotland and he came to China when he was 17 to study Chinese and go to university.

Now, Adam’s Chinese is good.  Really good.

So good, most Chinese people can’t tell he’s not Chinese when he speaks on the phone.

But to be honest, having some non-Chinese person who is really good at Chinese isn’t all that rare these days. In fact, it is becoming more and more common. I know a lot of non-Chinese who are perfectly fluent in Chinese.

Where Adam sets himself apart is that he studied and performed Shaanxi style Chinese opera. In fact, he’s the first Westerner to ever perform this particular style of Chinese opera on stage. When people see that he took the time and effort to dive deep in to one of their cultural arts treasures, he gains a whole new level of respect.

I remember at my 40th birthday party, Adam was there, as were a lot of other friends, both non-Chinese and local. One of the groups of people who had come were my wife’s students from a continuing education English class.

Now, Adam is a good musician already and had been playing a bit of guitar, but when he busted out the Shaanxi opera in front of a room full of local Shaanxi people you could see a mixture of cultural pride and respect wash across their faces.

It was really something special to them.

You can bet they have a completely different view of him than any other Chinese-speaking foreigner they might run in to.

Inside the Looking Glass

Another advantage, which I eluded to before, is that practicing traditional cultural arts give you insights into how a group of people view themselves. It provides more clues and context for understanding their own cultural identity.

Through the course of study, and seeing how they approach their own practice within an art form, you see examples of how their culture is expressed in action.

You start to understand why they do some of the “strange” things they do.

Because you aren’t reading about cultural behavior in a book — you are experiencing it first-hand, right in front of your eyes.

When I saw the coach-athlete dynamic played out with professional wushu athletes, I had a better look at similar hierarchical relationships within Chinese culture:

Teacher – student. Parent – Child. Boss – Worker.

It gave me a further insight into how the Chinese people view themselves and consequently, I was better able to associate and relate to Chinese people on their terms.

And not only that, but knowing some of the ideas of philosophy related to wushu, allowed me to better explain my positions on issues using terminology and cultural cues that they were already familiar with.

Describing my ideas in the context of a cultural perspective they understood helped my explanations and ideas resonate more deeply within those people.

Personal Expression

A final advantage I want to mention (although certainly there are much more than just 3) is that practicing a cultural art was also providing an avenue through which I could express myself.

The arts are excellent at this. Music, dance, painting, sculpture … whatever art form you might choose to pursue, allows you a way to share who you are with other people.

Arts are unique in this way.

They combine the mental with the spiritual; the technical with the creative. You aren’t just learning a skill, but you are learning a method for self-expression. And this has benefits both in terms of how you share yourself with the people around you, but also with expressing yourself in a cultural context that they can identify with.

Planning my practice

I’ve come to think that a practice of cultural arts is such a beneficial method to both study a language and understand a culture, that I’ve made it a point to always consider the cultural arts I want to practice when considering a new language to study.

If language is about learning to communicate (and not just memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules) then the more methods you have to communicate yourself to other people, the better.

Communication is about connecting to people’s minds and hearts, and no medium does this better than the creative arts.

In the past I would just write long lists of languages that It bought it was cool to learn. I would base them on things like the number of people around the world who spoke the language, or the spread of the language and my access to native speakers.

I might still use that as a starting point, but now I look deeper.

I look at the cultural arts which represent the people who speak that language.

If I’m going to learn Spanish, then what about spanish speaking cultural arts really speaks to me?

Argentinean tango? Bull fighting? (Ewww, okay, not Bull fighting.) Flamenco guitar? Spanish cuisine? By exploring an art form that appeals to me and diving deep in to that practice it provides a great way to explore the language and culture.

Or, instead of starting with the language, I might start with the destination.

This year my wife and I are relocating to a small island in Hawaii. I can use that opportunity to learn Hawaiian through the context of cultural arts — Hula dancing, Ukelele music, Hawaiian visual arts, culinary arts — I can explore the one that speaks to me at the deepest level and use that to fuel my interest in the language and people.

The nice thing about that is that, for the most part no one really speaks much Hawaiian anymore. English or even Pidgin is the lingua franca of that area.

But by exploring some cultural arts, I’ll be exposed to parts of the language that I might not have the opportunity to experience through only learning the language by itself.

Hawaiian music is sung in Hawaiian. Hawaiian cooking utilizes hawaiian terminology to describe various dishes.  There are lots of opportunities to “8x” my exposure to Hawaiian through study of a cultural art.

Because studying a cultural art ads another layer to the study of language.

It builds relationships with native speakers in a much different way than just being friends or language partners.

It creates an emotional connection through you as a cultural artist and them as members of that culture.

The next time you consider learning a language think about what else you can practice within the context of that culture which might elevate your experience.

If language is about communicating with people, and communicating with people requires an understanding of their culture, then fully exploring the culture through their native arts is one of the highest forms of communication that you can experience with those people.

What do you think? Have you had the experience of studying a cultural art?  Do you think that studying traditional culture has an impact on language learning?  Let me know in the comments below!