Culture Hacking: The Real Secret to Mastering a Language

by Balázs Csigi

Do you ever feel like you just can’t move on to the next level with the language you’re learning?

You put in tons of effort, but it just feels impossible to move off the plateau?

You have a large vocabulary, and you understand a lot but when it comes to speaking, you keep wondering why you can’t sound like a native speaker?

Well, I had the same feeling with English when I started to learn it many years ago. It’s a language radically different from my mother tongue, Hungarian, and after reaching an upper-intermediate level, I was wondering if I would ever speak like a native.

I spent long, endless hours memorising flashcards and going through grammar books. I diligently immersed myself by reading tons of articles. But somehow I felt very far from true mastery of the language. I could manage everyday situations in English but I was hopelessly far from being mistaken for a native speaker even for a fleeting moment.

How Linguistics Completely Transformed My English Journey

When I discovered cognitive linguistics and cultural semantics (more on that later – it’s not as scary as it sounds), I went from one “aha!” moment to another. Soon, I realized why I was wrong about languages.

I used to look at learning a language as most of us are led to believe:

  1. Memorise many words and phrases
  2. Apply grammar to them to make sentences
  3. Practise with others to make your reactions automatic

Needless to say, it’s easy to get tired of this process and lose motivation. It took me quite a while to break free from this mindset.

Thankfully, after getting my hands on some of the best linguistic research I could find, a whole new world opened up before me. I could now see a tremendous wealth of culture and imagination where I had only seen a randomly connected sequence of sounds before.

I came to understand that the secret recipe for mastering a language is the following:

Master every bit of the culture and you can achieve native-like mastery of the language itself.

When I realised this, my English studies immediately gained a new momentum. Fast-forward to now. I can already write articles in English for native speakers, talk at a conference without grasping for the right word and easily discuss all sorts of ideas (Okay, maybe not particle physics or rocket science but that’s another matter).

Mastering English has been an incredible gift in my life. I received a new mindset, a new set of emotions, and a new way of thinking. My personality has been subtly but powerfully impacted. I would say I even took on a secondary identity. Cultural semantics has played a very important role in this process. But what is cultural semantics?

What the Heck Is Cultural Semantics?

To put it simply, cultural semantics is the study of the meaning of words and phrases and their connection to culture. Many words in a language are unique; they cannot be exactly translated into other languages. Every word has a whole range of connotations, images, and associations that you cannot map to another language. The English words “patronise” and “fun”, and the phrase “common sense” all reflect English (and American) mentality and culture. They cannot be simply translated into my native language of Hungarian, because Hungarian people have a different mentality, a different mindset and this is reflected in their language.

That’s one of the main reasons why memorising words is not an option if you want to achieve mastery. Instead of rote learning, one needs to go beyond the surface and uncover the hidden culture behind words and phrases. It’s like cracking an exciting secret code, or connecting the dots in a detective story.

Let me now crack for you the secret cultural code behind a few common English expressions.

The Secret Cultural Code behind Everyday English Words and Phrases

There are countless English words that have no exact counterparts in Hungarian, nor, as far as I know, in other European languages. The reason is that they capture an aspect of English or American mentality that is not present in other European cultures.

”Reasonable”: One can easily count tons of expressions with this one word alone: reasonable doubt, reasonable guy, reasonable time, reasonable request and many others. There’s a similar word to “reasonable” in Hungarian but I could never think of saying anything like reasonable request or reasonable doubt. These phrases are deeply rooted in a society that admires science, reason, logic and common sense. The word reasonable is linked to the idea that there is a certain common sense and everybody is supposed to follow it. However, it’s a highly culture-specific concept together with _common sense_and its range of use can be very hard to understand and master for a non-native speaker.

”Make a difference”: As far as I could see, Americans tend to have an innate desire to impact the world in a positive way with their work and actions. The phrase to make a difference is practically non-existent in most languages I know. There is some form of saying “to change the world” but it’s not a popular dream shared by millions of people.

”Fun”: I have never before come across a word in any language that describes such a wide spectrum of enjoyable activities from shopping to listening to a lecture. If translated literally from English into Hungarian, the words fun and enjoy can have a hedonistic overtone because we lack exact counterparts to these words.

The word enjoy can have a stronger meaning in most European languages than it has in English. In most of them it couldn’t be said, for example, enjoy your meal or enjoy your time. Maybe that’s why English has given me a sense of casual cheer and a more easy-going mentality.

The Cultural Mindset that’s Embedded into English

The following approaches and mindsets are unique to English, and come across in the language.

Softeners. A little bit, quite, rather, really, probably, presumably, I think, evidently, obviously, as far as I know and many other so-called softeners lend a special character to the English language. If you don’t use them, you can easily come across as abrupt, rude, or even uneducated. It was a revelation for me when I first started to see how these phrases work. Interestingly, I also started to use them more and more in my mother tongue. My family and friends have even begun to tease me for becoming too English.

An indirect approach. There are few European cultures that can express meanings in such a subtle and indirect way as English. Before saying something, you’re supposed to think carefully if it’s going to hurt someone else’s feelings, or if your comments will be considered prying.

Many of the Anglo-style indirect and polite requests could easily cause confusion in other European cultures where it’s not the norm to be indirect. It’s enough to think of those funny phrase collections where you can see how the British say something, what they mean and how other Europeans understand it. For example, “quite good” is often understood as praise by most Europeans, while the British might mean “it’s quite disappointing”. As an other example, “you must come for dinner” can often be said out of politeness by the British, without implying an actual invitation. However, it can be confusing because this phrase would be taken as an invitation in most parts of Europe.

I learned to be much more tactful, polite and sometimes indirect after mastering English. I would say it’s one of the most obvious ways English has left its mark upon me.

Positive thinking. One can argue about the pros and cons of positive thinking but one thing seems to be certain: thinking positively is an essential part of Anglo-Saxon culture and it’s imprinted on the fabric of the English language. This is apparent from the way many English speakers replace negative words (e.g. problem) with positive and neutral words (e.g. challenge or issue). Positive thinking is an all-pervasive idea. Some authors, like Barbara Ehrenreich, even attribute large-scale social changes to this mindset.

As you can see, the connection between language and culture goes far deeper than a few generalisations about the Italians being romantic and the Germans precise. Most words of a foreign language reveal a specific mentality. It’s most easily felt when you translate from one language to another. Maybe you know the feeling when a translation just doesn’t “feel” the same as the original version. Through understanding everyday words and phrases from a native speaker’s standpoint, you can unravel their culture in a very detailed and practical way, just like you can crack a secret code.

Culture Hacking: The Real Secret to Language Mastery

Language learning, at least once you’re past the beginner level, is not about memorising sequences of random sounds until you can utter them automatically.

Language learning is not about sweating over grammar rules and trying to get them right every time you speak.

Language learning is all about discovering the beauty of another culture. It’s like travelling to a far-away, exotic country. It’s about being energised by the seductive charm of a new culture.

As you walk through new lands, you soak up the atmosphere of a different people. You immerse yourself in their history, music and food. At every corner you come across something that makes you stop, smile and wonder.

Mastering a language is exactly the same. No matter what language you’re learning, let the pulse of a new culture run through your veins.

Balázs Csigi

Balázs Csigi

CEO, Metaphor English
Speaks: Hungarian, English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Indonesian

Language teacher Balázs Csigi created the Fluent English email course for English learners to master the language through culture hacks.



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