To learn Spanish you must understand Spanish culture and customs
Learning Spanish is much more than simply learning the rules of the language and applying them. If you want to speak as a native you must also understand Spanish culture and customs.
If you do not grasp the mindset of Spanish people you will always be prone to choosing words, tones, phrases, expressions and moments that give you away as being a foreigner. This can lead you into all sorts of trouble. You can be misunderstood, you can misunderstand, you can sound over-polite, you can sound impolite and you can sound plain silly.
The Spanish language is very different to the English language. In a similar way, Spanish culture and customs are very different to any other cultures and customs.
Let’s take a look at some obvious examples of where culture and customs overlap with language.
Spanish people do not use so many conditionals (e.g. “Would you mind?”, “Could I?”, “If you would be so kind”) as English speakers to stress their politeness and limit their use of “please” and “thank you”. If you translate your English customs into Spanish you can sound ridiculous in Spain.
A Spanish barman, for example, does not want to hear “Excuse me, if you have a moment I wonder if you would be ever so kind as to make me a gin and tonic, thank you very much”. He considers it his job to make gin and tonics and so the conditional “Would you?” sounds absurd. He expects to hear something along the lines of “Ponme un gin tonic” (“Give me a gin and tonic” or “Un gin tonic por favor” (“One gin and tonic please”).
If you don’t understand Spanish culture and customs you will make mistakes such as this and you can also misunderstand Spanish people as being rude.
Spanish people are not rude. Spaniards tend to be more direct in their choice of words, with less airs and graces, but they are still polite and respectful. That is, if you understand Spanish culture and customs. There is, for example, an acceptable way of saying “Ponme un gin tonic”, using a polite tone, manner and timing.
The Spanish custom for conversation is to be generally more flowing, forthright and natural. This style can be tricky for an English speaker to adopt as it often contradicts what they have been taught since childhood.
The accepted rule in Spain is that there are less rules regarding conversation protocol. People speak as loudly as they choose, people speak over one another, in a group there can be a variety of conversations going on at once, and if you sit back to wait your turn you will likely not speak.
Again, at first glance, if you do not understand Spanish culture and customs, this can seem discourteous and disrespectful. But it is not, it’s just different. To a Spanish person who does not understand English culture and customs our conversations can seem tepid and lifeless.
The key is taking the time to understand Spanish culture and customs with an open mind. Our world is a rich tapestry of different cultures, customs and conversation protocols, all wonderful in their own way and tried and tested by their own people.
The challenge for the foreign language learner is leaving behind their own cultural influences and digesting a new language with a blank canvas, It’s not easy, but it’s the only way to speak like a native and also to properly enjoy the experience of learning your second language.
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