The combination of equal access to the Internet and quarantine boredom (for those of us lucky enough to feel it) has resulted in feats big and small: TikTok videos, sourdough bread, baking extravaganzas, binging Netflix shows, doomscrolling, and probably one of my most favorite results: language learning.
Suddenly feeling the need to brush up on your high school or university Spanish has been one of the most common quarantine habits, as people start to realize what I’ve been shouting for the past few years: with the proper motivation and WiFi signal, travel is not necessary to learn a language.
This is my wheelhouse, my funhouse, my playhouse. I love romping around and finding the anglicized influence in Latin American Spanish, practicing my own Spanish, and teaching Spanish to my own clients. In fact, this is one of my biggest cheers: you don’t need thousand-dollar trips to learn a language, not when the Internet is here! Finally, simply because we’re forced to, people are taking note: buying more language lessons, going on Google fact-finding missions, asking for learning advice on Facebook. “If we can’t travel physically,” people seem to be saying, “let’s travel virtually”.
But learning a language doesn’t mean belonging.
Based on our age-old tribal structures, humans like to belong to a group. This is why clubs and groups are so prevalent for all ages, and our social structures and norms are constantly under a microscope. While we all have a shared human essence that makes us who we are (and makes it possible to get through a trip by frenzied sign language, pointing, and overdramatic facial expressions), when we speak a different tongue than others, that sense of belonging together in a group can feel fuzzy at best.
If a language is a constantly-new, fluid invention based on age, race, gender, location, and niche; culture is this same effect tenfold. Culture is always evolving, changing, and growing.
It’s hard enough keeping track in our own culture and the generational tiffs that always seem to be popping up. Culture is TV, movies, music, books, comedy shows, comedians, actors and actresses, policies, politics, companies, and history. Language gets us on the same page, but culture tells us we should be reading the book in the first place.
I remember going out on Halloween in Madrid and looking at all the costumes. It was all fun and games until we saw a group of people dressed up like the KKK, in the robes and hoods. We were stunned; we’d never seen the KKK clothes up close before, and here they were, unabashedly walking down the street, joking and laughing! It wasn’t until we went to school the following Monday and were telling a teacher what happened that we realized: it wasn’t the KKK. They had dressed up like medieval priests. During la Semana Santa, or Holy Week, people don the robes (that predate the KKK by a few centuries) to show anonymous penance for their sins.
Culture differences aren’t always this visceral, it can also mean the difference between not knowing common plays or television shows, or it can also mean a completely different attitude towards certain things.
This isn’t to say that we’re all different: in fact, I think we’re more alike than we realize. (Whether we spell realize like darse cuenta, realise, or se rendre compte doesn’t mean much.) But learning, speaking, or typing a language will not be an answer for true fluency and belonging.
To truly feel a sense of belonging, you’ll need to be integrated into your target culture as much as possible: which means travelling when possible, or reading books, watching movies, or interacting with others online to learn more about a daily life other than your own. We’re all on our own journey to belong, where a healthy dose of curiosity and humility, a dash of humor and a smile are the required ingredients.