Culture affects everything. I know this, but even after living in three countries besides my passport country, I am caught by surprise at what culture impacts. For example, recently I was reminded that the concept of corners is cultural.
I’ve been slowly learning Arabic in Jordan. (Thankfully, most of the Jordanians I work with are bilingual.) One place where I get to use a lot of Arabic is in taxis, since that’s how I travel between the various libraries I work with. In fact, I often tell people that I speak “taxi Arabic.” Not only can I get where I want to go and negotiate how much the ride will cost (or send away a driver who won’t use the meter!), but I can understand and answer the common questions taxi drivers always ask: Why are you here? Do you like Jordan? Are you married?
I learned many direction words early on: Go straight. Turn right. Turn left. Stop. And I knew that most traffic circles have names, and I learned the ones I go to often. But I’d been baffled about why taxi drivers didn’t understand whenever I asked to go to the intersection of two streets. Maybe the problem was that I hadn’t yet learned the word for “corner.”
So, one day I asked a Jordanian friend for the word “corner” in Arabic. She told me. I then tested my use of the word in a sentence with her, asking to get out of the taxi at the corner. My friend’s response was, “What?”
As we unpacked her confusion, I discovered that Arabic only uses the word “corner” for things like the corner of a table, not for intersections. Who would have guessed??!! Not me, obviously, but I should have.
Here is what I’ve learned as I’ve studied multiple languages:
- Language learning is as much about culture as language.
- Never assume that you can translate word-for-word from English to another language.
- Learning how to translate ideas and meaning (and not just words) is important.
- Humbly ask questions and explore ideas, which really is the fun of learning a new language.
- Develop good local friends who can help translate not just words, but ideas and culture
- Be gracious toward yourself and others. Even those of us who are used to navigating life in another culture sometimes forget and slip back into assuming that everyone expresses themselves using the same concepts we do in our home languages.
So, how do you describe the intersection of two streets in Arabic? According to my friend, you don’t. Instead, you learn landmarks like restaurants and hotels. After all, most taxi drivers don't know street names anyway. Street names, after all, are an idea that's not part of their culture!
About the Author: Libby is an IDEAS Associate and professional librarian. She currently resides in the Middle East and works with school libraries in Africa and Asia. Check out previous blogs by Libby: Why We All Need to Think Like Librarians and A Librarian's Pick for Children and Young Adult Reading.