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.