How Does Your Cultural Identity Influence Your Language Learning?

What kind of learner are you?

Most people might reply by saying “I’m a visual learner” or “I learn best with a tutor”, but there are other factors that can influence your learning as well. Only, we’re less likely to think of them until we’re asked a different question:

What defines you?

For the most part, we think of our identities as boxes that we check off on forms, lists of hobbies and interests, and roles we play. We’re women, men, mothers, fathers, business owners, pet owners, immigrants, travelers, and language learners.

The truth is our identities and cultures have an impact on our learning experiences. So, what does that mean for your language learning goals?

How’s your vocabulary?

According to initial data from the Millennium Cohort Study, young people’s vocabulary knowledge is influenced by a number of factors, including their parent’s education and ethnicity.

Though your parents might not be responsible for the words you’re learning in your target language, it’s safe to say that your own cultural habits can play an important role in what you learn and when.

Think of it this way. If you’re a woman, you might be inclined to learn some key phrases or words that your male friends might not worry so much about. This might be as simple as keeping track of the words that define yourself, since they may be gendered. It could also be as specific as learning the correct words to buy eyeliner, a bra, or tampons in a foreign country.

If you’re curious, think about some of those qualities that define your life experiences and the vocabulary that surrounds them. Maybe you need to learn to ask about allergies for your trip abroad or you want to be able to talk about your photography or the other languages you speak.

Why are you learning _____?

We’ve all heard it from someone before.

“Why are you learning that language? Why not _____?”

Well, which qualities led you to that language?

If you’re from a mixed background, like me, it might be a crucial, yet unexplored piece of your personal puzzle. It can be a connection to past relatives, an experience that put you in contact with a certain culture, or even just a conversation you overheard.

Don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed of it or talk you out of it.

What’s holding you back?

I’ve got a confession. My fear of speaking Spanish is worse than all of my other language anxieties combined. Why?

Because people expect me to.

My skin is lighter than it was when I was young, but my curly hair and the bit of melanin I’ve got give it away. I look like I speak Spanish, but I never learned it.

Honestly, it’s one of my biggest language embarrassments. In reality, there are plenty of people with a Spanish speaking background who don’t know Spanish, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling anxious about it.

As a result, I know my speaking skills don’t get any practice with random strangers in public.

General cultural differences, accents, and attitudes can also hold us back. Native speakers of Japanese have difficulties with the English ‘r’ sound, while Western English speakers can struggle with unfamiliar Japanese rules regarding politeness.

Why will you succeed?

Just as cultural differences can hinder your understanding, similarities can make it easier for you to catch on to something new.

People who already speak one of the Romance languages usually have an easier time learning another. If you grow up in a place that hosts a variety of cultures and languages, you might catch on more quickly if you try to learn one of those languages later on. For instance, I might not speak Spanish fluently (yet!), but a few early experiences mean I’ve never had trouble rolling my r’s.

Intrinsic motivation and personal connections are also powerful motivators. They can help you define your goals more clearly and help you reach them more efficiently. When your reasons for learning, your own ambitions, and your acknowledgement of weaknesses and strengths make up parts of your language goals, you’re more likely to reach them.

Truthfully, you never know how your own identity might lead to language learning success. Sometimes, we tend to focus on the negative things about ourselves that present obstacles and forget to count all of the wonderful qualities that make us successful.

So, how is your identity influencing your language learning?

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