Looking for Culture

Growing up, I knew my family wasn’t native to the area. In a place where I always felt like I stuck out or didn’t belong, that promise of finding a rich history to trace, along with certain customs or language lured me in to find out more about my ancestry. Other classmates were keen to share theirs. “We’re German”, they would say, “and my parents are going to Germany to find my grandparents’ records.” Or, “We’re Italian, and my mom has a copy of the Ellis Island records.” When I tried to pry my mom to figure out where our roots actually were, she would say, “We’re from Springfield.” I didn’t want to be from Springfield, Ohio; I wanted to find a background and history that helped me feel like I belonged to a certain place and time.

Community is such a big part of culture, but we don’t see it unless we’re on the outside.

I was never used to people caring about where I was or calling me just to chat; we were all busy and working, and while my parents were attentive and cared, there was never talk about staying close to home and close to family. Perhaps it’s our tribal roots or clan mentality, but when we bind ourselves together in search of a feeling of belonging, we can be better for it. Now, not all groups are equal: there are cults and factions in the United States that genuinely frighten me. But I also understand what their members want: they just want to belong somewhere.

When I began learning Spanish, I started to adopt the culture and community I felt I lacked. We don’t think of “culture” as being inherent to a language, though it most certainly is. I started to know the steps to a dance I taught myself, or hear a song and know all the words. While culture might get celebrated on a monthly basis, like Black History Month or Women’s Month, it’s much more than a series of celebrations. It’s a living, breathing thing: because it’s made up of living, breathing things.

Culture might be related to time management, types of business, what’s important in an area to know as a tourist or as a transplant.

Fast forward a few decades, and I know that there’s so much more beyond teaching Spanish words and grammar. While some are content knowing just enough to get around, others can’t rest until they can truly get in the head of someone else, to see what they see, read what they read, and listen to what they hear. Everything I teach is made of at least two things: the language and the culture. These are the two prerequisites of learning how other worlds other than the one you’ve always known work. Culture might be related to time management, types of business, what’s important in an area to know as a tourist or as a transplant.

As a redhead, I might stick out like a sore thumb while travelling and living amidst the culture, but I’ll absolutely want to know it and respect it. So much of language learning is about figuring out where the boundaries are: what are useful phrases to know, common vocabulary, and generally how to not inadvertently offend someone. While basic language learning is more self-focused, (how do I move about and be able to get what I need and get what I want), intermediate language learning is more community-focused. How to make small talk, how to speak in a conversation; how to give someone your thoughts and opinions without losing that sense of respect, staying in control in a conversation; how to truly live amongst the differences that are inherent when you move someplace new.

Language learning is like learning the dance moves. Culture, though, is knowing why the dance is important, and how to keep it alive in a community.

When I was getting my COVID vaccine, I was people watching and noticed these two women talking together, acting like the best of friends. “That’s cool,” I thought, “they either ran into each other or made their appointments together.” It wasn’t until they finally introduced themselves at the end of the conversation that I realized they were complete strangers – but they were able to bond over so much, so quickly. Being outside of a community, whether it’s religious, racial, built on kids’ sports or PTA meetings, or indigenous to a neighborhood, will tell you one thing: we all need community.


Megan Miller
Megan Miller
As one enamored with deep thinking and deep conversations, Megan Miller shares her findings and experiences as a word nerd and language lover worldwide. With more than 2 decades of Spanish under her belt, Megan has experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingualism. Megan is the founder and owner of Aprovechar Language Solutions, a translation and Spanish/English language coaching business that focuses on mindset, habit, and real-world examples to improve people’s confidence and comfortability in speaking and communicating. When she’s not coaching or translating, Megan uses her communication skills as an IT Project Manager to produce technological solutions and likes to travel and bake in her free time

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  1. Loved this, Megan.

    I am so curious why you needed to learn a new language to find a culture you could feel you belonged to or with? I am also curious about how you feel when you are traveling in a Spanish speaking country – in Spain or in South America – about the USAnian culture and the fellow Estadosunienses you meet abroad? Because there is nothing like being on the outside of the country to figure out how “odd” and well ingrained one’s own culture is.

    • As always, thought-provoking questions, Charlotte! I think for me, I didn’t know exactly what I was searching for until I started finding bits of it. I first started out with Spanish as “oh, this is cool, my brain works well with this and I can use it as a life skill”– but in reality, I was searching for a place to belong. After I left my hometown, “home” didn’t really feel like “home” – and I was a little nomadic until I found the people, places, and culture that made me feel at home: (which, to be honest, is a multicultural linguistic rabbit hole with a healthy dose of East Coast frankness and liberal ideology).

      Speaking bits of other languages, learning other cultures, and being OK with differences in general has simply allowed me to see different perspectives. I’m very pro-immigration for example, because I was an immigrant in Spain, and I’ve been on both sides of the argument. As far as mingling with the other estadounidenses whilst abroad, to me it’s all about assimilation – some don’t assimilate at all, most assimilate to an extent, and others assimilate so hard and fast that it’s hard to tell them apart from other natives. To find out more about ourselves, our own culture, and intermingling with other cultures, I think we need to either travel for an extended period or live outside of our home country or our native customs. With that being said, it reminds me of this American bar we went to in Belfast- it was the strangest thing to experience what others thought was an “American” culture (big drinks on fire, 10£ hot dogs, huge hamburgers, etc.). Perhaps the political science answer stands here: it depends (on the person, on their perspective, on how well-travelled or assimilated they are, and on your own perspective).

  2. Great article Megan. Love your line: Language learning is like learning the dance moves. Culture, though, is knowing why the dance is important, and how to keep it alive in a community. I am starting the research for a book “Secrets to Keeping Traditions and Rituals Alive.” This third book will be Secrets to Keeping Traditions and Rituals Alive. I am looking for special national holidays, celebrations, food, religious, etc.. My goal is to get input from many cultures, ethnic groups, families, countries, communities, even business traditions to show the world we all have far more in common than what divides us.

    Let me know if you are interested.