What is Fluency? - Part VI - Cultural Fluency

Camel riders

Continuing our series on What is Fluency?, let's now move on to an important - and oft overlooked - aspect of total fluency: cultural fluency. Cultural fluency is the ability to work naturally within the context of a given culture, picking up on key references and shared experiences.

A key component of cultural fluency is knowledge of references to key texts, films, songs, and events. If I say, Over the river and through the woods… or To be or not to be…, that's all I need to mention for most English speakers to get the references to Little Red Riding Hood and Hamlet respectively. With just a few words, I can then conjure up an entire host of images and emotions associated with the narratives I'm referencing. If you do not know these narratives, however, you will not understand either the phrases I'm using or their cultural context.

A lot of people mistakenly believe they simply need to develop more vocabulary to understand more in a language. I have known people who have developed structural and ritual fluency, and had large vocabularies, but constantly felt confused and out of place. What they were lacking was cultural fluency. When you start to pay attention to it, references to shared cultural information are a dime a dozen. In English, everything from Shakespeare to Dr. Seuss comes up in speech, news, movies, and other narratives all the time. The equivalent is true in other languages. Language learners often possess enough vocabulary, but are lacking these references.

Cultural fluency is about shared experience, and doesn't have to include only those works of literature, film, or music that are native to the culture itself. The film Gladiator is popular in North Africa, for example - this is still “valid” shared cultural experience, even though it was filmed in English. Anything that is shared is fair game.

Cultural fluency includes knowledge of not just films, books, and songs, but also other shared experiences. What is the school system like? What is taught in school? What do children learn about the history of their own country and the history of other countries? Of course, festivals and national holidays are also really important. If you can take part in these - even once - it gives you a comfort with the culture and also a shared experience you can use to connect with speakers. I participated once in Réttir, the annual sheep-counting festival in Iceland. Though I'd heard all about it before, actually experiencing it is different.

Another important component of cultural fluency is humor. Taking another Icelandic example, I remember showing my family a clip of an Icelandic comedy sketch, which I found absolutely hilarious and thought they would enjoy. After watching it, they simply stared at me, as though concerned for my sanity. A few years before, I might also have found nothing funny in the same clip. Humor is one of the more challenging aspects to translate in any language. The sensibility may be completely different, and so much of comedy relies on references to cultural events and shared experience. As such, comedy can be a great indicator of what references are important to learn within a culture.

The great thing about cultural fluency is that it is really fun to gain. If you have an appreciation for the culture already, then you are going to be reading stories, watching movies and television, listening to music, and participating - as best you can - in a variety of cultural events. In the next post, we'll explore some specific strategies for developing cultural fluency.

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