cultural understanding

Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.

— Michael Gove

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Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at


Language and culture go hand in hand. You can not learn, or understand, one without the other.

As a high school student, I was given the opportunity to write to a ‘pen-pal’ from Japan. Remember the art of letter writing? Hand written on lovely paper. A nice stamp from the post office. Then a wait of about a month for a much anticipated reply.

(As an aside, I went looking for a nice pack of stationery the other day. Do you think I could find anything? Gone are the days where you could walk into a newsagent and browse through a large selection of beautiful stationery. It’s rather sad really.)

My Japanese pen-pal wrote in English. So did I, because the only languages offered at my high school were Indonesian and French and I had scant interest in either one. We wrote to each other for five years; when I was in Year 12, I decided I would enrol in a Japanese course for my final year so I could write to Toshimi in her language.

Well — the intention was there.

It takes a lot longer than one year of college Japanese to be able to write what you want to write in a letter. But, it started me on my way.

At university, as part of my Bachelor of Education degree, I had to select a major. Japanese was the obvious choice. My year of college Japanese may not have equipped me to communicate in writing with my pen-pal, but it certainly helped me survive my first year of University Japanese. The lecturers went through things so fast, and my only saving grace was that I had a bit of background experience.

However, despite being taught mainly by native speakers of Japanese, and developing my understanding of the language and the way it worked, I had little knowledge of the culture. I am not talking about sushi and kimonos and kanji — that’s the superficial culture, the one that is ‘taught’ in schools.

It is the deeper culture I had no knowledge of; the social customs and mores, the reasons behind thinking and values and the historical perspective and its impact on the development of the Japanese way of life. This is the sort of thing that is not taught at school — not even close.

I studied Japanese language for another three years before grabbing the opportunity to actually go to the country. Living there for a year, as a student, was an eye-opener. It gave me perspective and made me realise how little I knew. The problem was, I was still a student, so I didn’t actually know what I ‘needed to know’ in order to immerse my own future students into the culture.

After graduating, I taught Japanese for three years. Looking back, I also taught superficial culture. My students learned all about the different festivals, clothing, food, schooling, transport and housing. They could say please and thank you at the dinner table, knew what the different parts of the kimono were called, and made various paper decorations for different festivals — but they did not know why they were doing this because I didn’t.

Luckily, another opportunity presented itself, allowing me to return to Japan and immerse myself in the culture and day-to-day life … this time as a teacher. I knew what I wanted this time, and went for it. I was there for two years and only scraped the surface, but I believe my scrapings made me a better teacher.

Over the years of being a ‘LOTE’ teacher (Languages Other Than English) I have come across many people of varying attitudes. Some loved the fact I was providing insight into another culture and language; some thought it was an absolute waste of time; while others (rare, thankfully) thought it was all part of some evil plot to take over Australia. The attitudes of the children I taught were usually reflective of that of their parents — it made teaching difficult at times, but also a challenge I accepted. (Having an impact on the attitude of one of your students is one of the most rewarding things about teaching.)

At some point I realised that my goal for my students had changed. Rather than wanting them to become fluent in Japanese language and culture, I wanted them to become open to learning other languages and seeking deeper understanding of culture. I would encourage them to enrol in other languages in high school — partly because of my new goal, but mainly because the high school curriculum started from scratch again, and there is no quicker way to turn someone off a language than to assume they have no knowledge at all.

Not everyone has the opportunity to experience another culture first hand, but it should be our goal. Only a certain amount of understanding can be gained from books; we need to get out there, talk to people, listen to their stories and ask questions if we want to engender true understanding and empathy.

There is a bigger world out there than what is in our back garden. Too few people explore it.

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3 thoughts on “cultural understanding

  1. Love your opening statement, Kellie. ‘Language and culture go hand in hand’. Amen, Amen, Amen!!!!!!

    Learning another language and becoming familiar with another culture are wonderful, fulfilling, life-long learning experiences. Going outside your comfort zone to readily immerse yourself in an unfamiliar culture is an incredibly rewarding experience. I know this is true! I have lived it most intimately. I have been very fortunate in experiencing a culture first hand. From the moment I met my South American husband, I commenced a life-long journey of appreciating the Spanish language and teaching it to students in schools in the ACT and Queensland. The teaching of connections with familiar cultures were very important elements. I became a staunch defender against all forms of racism. I learnt the Spanish language by being immersed in it. Spanish was spoken every day in our household as my mother-in-law ‘moved in’ and became an integral part in nurturing our three sons. At the same time, I learnt to become a more accepting human being, as I learnt to live in a South American and English culture under the one roof. At times, this was a very testing exercise for me, but hopefully it has made me a better citizen of our global world.

    I have always had an incredible thirst to learn other languages and become able to successfully communicate orally. Travelling is a wonderful vehicle to assist this quest. Just to see how people from different cultures live and interact is, and will always remain, a passionate part of my being.

    As Danny Kaye said……
    Life is a great big canvas and you should throw all the paint on it you can.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love that Danny Kaye quote! How true! Learning a language is so enriching. I get so frustrated sometimes though when I our education systems only paying lip service to its value … and seeing language teachers having to fight to have their subject recognised. When I was teaching Japanese, if something had to go by the wayside – the language program was first. I fought for years to get recognition for the value of languages education, and to start up continuity programs between primary school and high school language programs … all to no avail, causing me to burn out and vow I wouldn’t teach languages any more if I couldn’t do it the way I knew it needed to be done.


      1. …And the beat goes on!! How terribly sad is the way in which language programs have been devalued in our schools. How very true that our education systems only pay lip service to its value!! Why can’t people in the education hierarchy realise and embrace the teaching of quality language programs in our schools??? Integral connectedness offered by such programs is sadly dismissed. Education catch cries say Diversity! Diversity! We must address diversity in our classrooms!!! By supporting quality language programs, our schools would be doing just this, perhaps negating extreme racism and achieving authentic learning outcomes of promoting a thinking, harmonious global society.


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