How discovering cultural aspects can help you learn a foreign language


Today I’d like to feature a guest article sent to us by Martha Simmons, a writer and editor with the Translateshark translation service who enjoys writing articles on learning languages and translation. In her own words: “I love reading and traveling as it’s the best way to free my mind and relax. It helps to recharge my batteries and find the inspiration for my future projects.” Today’s post speaks about how cultural aspects that we often take for granted, or sometimes even ignore completely, can help us in our language learning voyage. (Red the whole article for a delicious recipe at the end.) Take it away, Martha!

Why do we start learning a foreign language? Some of us seek for some new career opportunities, others simply fall in love with its pronunciation and culture. A common misconception is that discovering the culture of people who speak that language can be helpful only AFTER you’ve learned it and are prepared to visit the corresponding country. We know that Germans are punctual and are passionate about long words, Spaniards are passionate and loud, and Italians love communicating using gestures. That will definitely help us while traveling to Germany, Spain, and Italy. But can the discovering of cultural aspects help you DURING the learning process? From my own experience, I can assure you that it can.

Learning Japanese

When I started learning Japanese I didn’t know much about the traditions and history of this wonderful country. And that wasn’t a big problem as knowing who was the third Emperor wouldn’t help me to learn Japanese calligraphy. Luckily, I’ve found something that would. The problem with learning languages is that at some point you start losing motivation and all that excitement of getting familiar with a new culture disappears. That’s the perfect time for looking for some additional inspiration to get you through this period. For me, it was sumi-e painting.



I’d accidentally stumbled upon a beautiful Japanese painting while surfing the web and decided to know more about the technique. That’s when I’ve discovered the so-called ink wash painting. It developed in China together with writing and then spread around. Japanese artists learned from the Chinese and later created their own version of Black Ink Painting – Sumi-e.

There are 3 features a good painting must have according to the Chinese masters:

  • calligraphy strokes
  • the words of poetry (with the presence of double meanings)
  • capturing the spirit of nature

What it means is that the painting doesn’t have to be photographically accurate but should illustrate the nature, liveliness, and beauty of something you paint. I was fascinated by this philosophy and decided to try painting myself. I was struggling with Japanese calligraphy and thought that this might help. I was right. Not only had I a great motivation to improve my skills, but I also enjoyed learning more and more words while translating the pun poems found on the paintings. Now I continue painting for my pleasure using not only black colors.


Anime is a large part of the Japanese culture we all know about. What I’ve learned from it, is that the language presented in some of them is not the realistic one everybody uses in everyday life. You may find some insulting expressions there I don’t recommend using in public places. I’m not a big fan of the genre, but anime gives you an opportunity to learn some interesting phrases you can use talking to Yakuza members. Again, this is something you wouldn’t normally find in your study books and grammar guides. Bringing that extra pinch of curiosity to your learning can turn the process around. Don’t limit your resources with boring and trivial learning books.

Learning Spanish

Spanish is the language I instantly fell in love with. Listening to the Spanish music and watching Spanish movies helped me a lot during the learning process. But there was a part of this colorful culture that made me even more passionate about it.

Spanish Cuisine

Don’t worry, I won’t write about every Spanish dish I’ve cooked and describe how good it was. It has nothing to do with learning languages. I’ve found another way to combine the things I like (cooking and eating) with the things I have to do (learn new Spanish words every day). So, I’ve decided to start cooking using original recipes written in Spanish. It was pretty easy for me to memorize the names of the vegetables, kinds of meat and fish while cooking. My friends enjoyed my cooking enthusiasm very much and I was glad to optimize my learning process in such an exciting way. Here’s how I did it.

The process is as following. First, I find a recipe in Spanish. I read it quickly and decide if I’m able to cope with cooking it. If I’m brave enough to do it, I rewrite the recipe in my notebook taking only half of a page. Then, I write an English translation on the other side. I underline all the words I don’t know yet to make them more visible and start cooking.


As some of you may know, during the cooking process, you re-read the recipe for several times to make sure you’re doing everything right and the proportions of ingredients are perfect. As you do it over and over again, the underlined words curb into your memory. That’s how easy it is to memorize some new words and expressions and then reward yourself with a tasty dinner. My choice of a favorite Spanish dish is not original. It’s paella. It may be because it was the first dish I cooked using a recipe in Spanish or just because it’s so tasty. Here’s how my bilingual recipe looks like (I’m writing it here so that some of you might consider using the same approach to learning Spanish or just treat yourselves with a delicious meal):

  • Paella de Marisco con Pollo


    – 400 gramos de arroz
    – Media cebolla grande
    – Media cabeza de ajitos
    – Un pimiento rojo
    – Dos tomates
    – Azafrán
    – 300 gramos de carne de pollo
    – 300 gramos de almejas
    – 300 gramos de gambas
    – Bonito
    – Una docena de cigalas

    1. Vamos a iniciar esta receta lavando todas las verduras. Ahora procedemos a cortar en tiras los pimientos, troceamos los ajitos, la cebolla, y picamos el tomate. Troceamos el pollo, limpiamos las almejas, y los mejillones.

    2. Hervimos los mejillones con un litro de agua, la piel del bonito y las cabezas de las gambas para que suelten todo su jugo. Despues lavamos el calamar, y lo troceamos y lo ponemos a sofreir en la paellera con el aceite de oliva.

    3. Ponemos el bonito troceado. Ahora incorporamos el pollo troceado, echamos las verduritas picadas, para que se sofrian tambien; el arroz, la sal.

    4. Echamos al caldo los mariscos y dejamos que se cocinen junto al arroz y las verduras durante unos 20 minutos. Pasado este tiempo probamos el arroz, si esta ‘al dente’ sera el momento de apartar del fuego. Deja reposar unos minutos antes de servir.

  • Seafood Paella with Chicken


    – 400 g of rice (paella rice)
    – ½ large onion
    – ½ head of baby garlic
    – 1 red pepper
    – 2 tomatoes
    – Saffron threads
    – 300 g of chicken meat
    – 300 g of clams
    – 300 g of prawns (with heads and shells)
    – Bonito fish
    – Dozen of langoustines

    1. We’ll start cooking this recipe with washing all of the vegetables. Now, cut the peppers and chop the baby garlic, onion, and tomatoes. Chop the chicken meat and clean clams and mussels.

    2. Boil the mussels adding 1 liter of water to them. Add the skin of bonito and the heads of prawns so that they could release all of their juice. Then, wash the squid, chop it and fry it over a low heat adding olive oil.

    3. Add the chopped bonito to the pan with squid. Add the chopped chicken, vegetables, rice, and salt.

    4. Add the broth and let the seafood, rice, and vegetables cook for about 20 minutes. Taste the rice and if it’s ‘al dente’, it’s time to turn off the heat. Let your paella cool for a couple of minutes before serving it.


Learning foreign languages should never be boring. If you start losing motivation and interest, search for some inspiration in the cultures of different countries and bring back the excitement to your learning process.