What is Fluency? - Part VII - How to Develop Cultural Fluency


In this final post in our series on What is Fluency? we'll look at how to build cultural fluency. Cultural Fluency is probably the most fun component of total fluency to develop, as it involves reading a lot of books, watching movies and TV, and listening to music. Essentially, it's about making up experiential ground in the culture in which your new language is spoken. You've got to spend the time to get up to speed on all the common shared experiences.

Starting in English

A certain amount of cultural fluency can actually be gained through your native language. You can read books in translation and watch movies and TV with subtitles or even dubbed. If you are learning Russian, reading War and Peace will take a good chunk of time, even in English! You can become familiar with characters, plots, and key events in literature, art, history, and film through translation. It's not ideal, but it's a good place to start. For culturally significant material, you can then read or watch the same material again later on in the original language.

Be aware, that if you're doing a lot through translation, you will miss key elements of your target language. Turns of phrases, expressions, and the actual names of things in your new language may remain unfamiliar even if you become familiar with certain events or narratives. You may know the stories of the Brothers Grimm, but you might not see the immediate connection between Little Red Riding Hood and Rotkäpchen or Sleeping Beauty and Dornröschen, which are the corresponding German titles. They're not direct translations, so you could easily miss a reference.

Nonetheless, translation is better than nothing, and means you can cover a lot of ground quickly. It's also good to get familiar with material in English first - developing a sensibility for new styles and senses of humor - and then it won't be as difficult when you go through the material again in the new language.

Children's Literature and Cartoons are Essential

As we get older, our interests divide and so do our tastes. As children, though, there is greater homogeneity in the things we do and experience. As such, some of the most shared experience is gained in our early years. Even as adults, we reference children's literature and film all the time. Consider how many times the Lion King has been included in jokes about President Obama (even by Obama himself!) or how many references to Harry Potter you see on a daily basis? Recently Harry Potter has been the central element in a debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This is good news for the language learner. Children's material is accessible, plot-driven, and of a good entry-level in terms of actual language. Cartoons and animations are also the easiest material to get a hold of with dubbing tracks in multiple languages.

Join In the Fun

In addition to getting up to speed with all the books, movies, TV, and music that are commonly enjoyed throughout childhood into adulthood, you'll want to experience as many other cultural phenomena as possible. This includes everything from understanding what the school system in the country is like to partaking in national and local festivals. For this level of cultural fluency, actually spending time in the country - or at least in a local expat community - will be really useful. Eat the food, drink the wine (or other beverages…), and dance the dances.

Your Vocabulary Will Explode

Developing cultural fluency in this manner is also the ticket to a robust vocabulary, replete with intertextuality and cultural references. How did you learn your vocabulary in English? Once you'd learned the structure of the English language, you expanded your vocabulary by reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and talking to people - all the things you need to do to develop cultural fluency. Vocabulary is a byproduct or side-effect of this process, and very little attention needs to be given to it directly if instead you focus on understanding culturally significant material.

When you first get started reading books in foreign languages, you'll need to get used to not understanding - and not looking up - every word you see. Think back to when you were a kid, and didn't understand everything. It's like that all over again, but much faster now that you're an adult. Just keep moving, and you'll be amazed at how quickly you start picking things up from context. When you get to this point, you're over the hump, and the rest is a matter of being consistent in doing things everyday in your new language. You can just start living in the new language, instead of setting aside time to learn it. By living it, you will continue to learn - just as you continue to learn English, even right now while reading this blog post…

This concludes our series in What is Fluency? The question "What is fluency?" is covered in our free video course, Time Management for Language Learning. Sign up HERE to learn more.

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