Cultural background knowledge and foreign language learning

By | April 24, 2014

I’ve mentioned in a few posts how background knowledge on a certain subject will make comprehension, and acquisition of new vocabulary words much easier when reading or listening to foreign language content related to that subject. For example, if you are very familiar with biology and read a Japanese biological journal, you’ll be able to quickly fill in the blanks with your knowledge, even if you originally learned biology in a different language. This is an important thing to keep in mind since it will help you keep motivation, select proper study materials, and know what to expect when reading something new.

However there is one area which is particularly difficult to get adequate background knowledge of, especially if you are living in a country which doesn’t use that foreign language. It’s the societies culture itself, both current and historical. Take watching a Japanese variety talk show where celebrities chat about almost anything that comes to mind. There are frequent references to famous people (celebrities, government figures, actors, musicians, etc.), songs, current events, or other societal trends. If you want to be thorough and look up each unfamiliar reference you can (assuming you can pause the video), but you may need dig to understand more than so-and-so is a comedian from the 80s, and even research into which of his jokes or routines were famous.

In my study of Japanese I’ve found this to be one of the most difficult problems, though on rare occasions I’ve been able to connect different parts of Japanese culture. For example, when the phrase “倍返し!” was mentioned in a podcast, I knew it was referring to the popular TV show Hanzawa Naoki which I had seen in its entirety. But these are few and far between.

Someday I’d like to live in Japan for at least a short period of time, but I feel that that would only help for a fraction of these references since many go back 20 or more years.

I’ve learned to not get too frustrated when I’m clueless about entire portions of a conversation, and listen for keywords mentioned several times so I can look them up later. Also I’ve found that reading newspapers is helpful for learning new words, though for Japanese several hundred Kanji are required knowledge for this to be a smooth process, otherwise you have to look up each character stroke by stroke which can be quite tedious.

The other thing is that I much prefer fantasy works over real-world stories in many cases, not just because of the smaller background knowledge required but because they are more interesting to me. So in some ways it’s a self-inflicted weakness (:




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3 thoughts on “Cultural background knowledge and foreign language learning

  1. adamf2011

    This is an interesting point, and one that I think often gets overlooked: The degree of difficulty in terms of learning a particular language relates not only to the language in and of itself, but to the culture that it’s a part of. Because learning a language involves a lot of guessing and trying to figure out what’s going on, the greater the cultural distance (between your own culture and that of the language you’re learning) the harder it can be, because you’re lacking basic facts, assumptions, experiences, etc. that people in the foreign culture simply take for granted.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the article! Thats a good point about how the distance between cultures effects the difficulty of learning that language.

  2. jecgenovese

    Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    ” background knowledge on a certain subject will make comprehension, and acquisition of new vocabulary words much easier when reading or listening to foreign language content related to that subject”


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