Why do we use language?
At its core, we use language to navigate the world more easily. Travel, work, commerce, can all be done internationally if we have a shared language. But even if we all speak the same language doesn’t mean we’ll have a shared language. No, a shared language is when each person participating in the language has a uniform definition for something – for example, a traffic light, or a computer. We all know these things by what they do or the utility they provide.
Shared language around intangibles is easy; it’s when we try to put constraints around concepts, deep-seated cultural norms, or thought patterns that disparities emerge.
Though some cultural norms we can see, the majority we cannot. Knowing the existence of a cultural norm is one thing; knowing why the norm exists is another. This is why history is so important. Want to know why pork and ham products are so populous in Madrid? It goes all the way back to the Spanish Inquisition and was one of the ways the Moors were flushed out of the city. Curious about coca usage in Colombia? Spoiler alert: it’s not to make cocaine; it’s rather a centuries-old practice to handle the altitude and altitude sickness. Why are there so many anti-drug policies and attitudes in the U.S.? It’s due to the “War on Drugs” policy and slogan from the Nixon era, specifically, 1971. Why is racism so prevalent in Latin America? It goes back to the encomiendas framework, which came about after the 1492 Conquest, and the fact that Europeans played off on the racial tensions that already existed in order to ensure their new social order didn’t unite against them.
These are just a few examples of why people do what they do. While you don’t need to study every scrap of history and memorize exact dates of every important event in a country, it helps to know key cultural facts and key historical events- especially in relation to the rest of the world at the time. The 1940s were a tumultuous time for many: Spain (Franco dictatorship begins), Germany and Western Europe (Hitler takes over many cities and countries by force), the U.S. (Pearl Harbor and the entrance to World War II), and Japan (the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Simply being cognizant of the country’s history will break down so many barriers, and in turn, make your language learning journey so much easier.