Cultural approaches to languages

I guess that every language learn must have faced the awkward comment from an acquaintance about learning “useful” languages and that you are probably wasting time learning about cultures and languages that are not popular at all in your part of the world. It is one of the things that irritate me the most regarding languages. I have already learned to give strong arguments to fight back such comments, but I would like to share an interview from Catalunya Ràdio to Ioannis Ikonomou, the European Commision translator (and a great Facebook friend!). It is in Catalan and Spanish and you may listen to it from ca. minute 31 🙂 .

In this interview, Ioannis gives important pieces of advice to any learner and that I happen to agree 100% with his views. He invites people to really immerse themselves in the languages they are learning, consume media in the target language and that your best language teachers don’t have to be people with fancy degrees or so, but everyday people and be exposed to as many different settings and contexts as possible (from people who are heavily discriminated by their society to more mainstream contexts). Also, he sees languages as opportunities to break down prejudices and misconceptions from your own society, thus deconstructing a narrative strong in many countries which is “my country is the best and other countries may be okay but not as good as mine”.

Coming from a country in which there are many misconceptions regarding Central and Eastern Europe (due to a strong Cold War rhetoric that still lives on the Chilean political discourse), I remember the crap I got when I started traveling to Poland and even when I started taking Polish lessons. From describing Poland as a dangerous and lawless place, a gloomy one to saying that Poles are “all dumb” (source: old films or “Polish jokes”). Curiously all of those bad comments made me even more curious and be even more willing to get in touch with the culture. Mind you, my intention is not to sugarcoat Polish culture and society. I am well aware of the many problems of the society, yet being aware of them can work great as an exercise of selfdiscovery. Suddenly, we have similar problems in our socities and that random person on the street you approached can be just as a great teacher of the language (and experiences) than your regular teacher. Curiously enough, I have never wanted to stay in hotel or hostel in Poland. I have stayed at friends (and their parents)’ homes or I have rented an apartment at a residential neighbourhood and that has improved my interest to learn about the culture or language. Interacting with people on a daily basis in a language I am learning and sometimes having to talk about topics I have never thought I could talk in Polish and being understood made me feel more confident on my choice. It became a great boostup that I saw, for example, the rude-looking lady at the underground kiosk in Warsaw wishing me a good day or that a Pole thanked me because an Italian tourist was trying to talk to him and she didn’t know Polish or English.

You never know when a language can be useful. I am big believer that no language is useless, however it is up to you on how you can use them on your daily life. This might be weird, but I have managed to used Polish twice at work.