Language classes usually consist of, well, language learning. You learn the grammar, how to listen and speak, how to read and write, you learn how to communicate. But when you take your skills outside of the classroom, do you realize how little you know? And I’m not talking about language-wise, I’m talking about everything else-wise.
Here’s basically a list of things you don’t learn in a language class and how to integrate yourself into your target language’s society, whether virtual or actual.
Standard vs. Non-Standard Language Varieties
First, I need to try and define “standard” and “non-standard” varieties. Something like a “standard variety” would be a dialect or a language that is taught in school, used by news anchors, the government, and is supported by institutions. A “non-standard” variety is the opposite of everything previously listed. To give you an example: I would say one component of “standard Brazilian Portuguese” is the use of the second person singular pronoun você. The “non-standard BP” would use tu for the second person singular.
Standard: Você quer que eu faça agora?
Non-Standard: Tu quer que eu faça agora?
I also have to take the time to say that standard and non-standard “categorizations” are not meant to say correct and incorrect, good and bad. Differences exist in every language whether it’s in vocabulary, how the languages sound between dialects, structure, etc.
But I would definitely say that you don’t really learn about these things in class, depending on what language you’re learning. When I took Brazilian Portuguese classes, my professor only taught us that você is used for the second person singular. However, when I started meeting people online from Brazil, I realized that there’s a large number of people that used tu for the second person singular with the same conjugation that you would use for você.
Standard: Você quer que eu faça agora?
Non-Standard: Tu quer que eu faça agora? NOT tu queres que eu faça agora?
Interesting, right? I never learned about this difference in class and I feel like it’s not something that you’ll get in a classroom, depending on the language. In places like Spanish class, the teachers tell (American) students to ignore the vosotros form and everyone knows vosotros exists in Spain and not in Latin America, but if you’re new to Spanish, you might find it surprising that in a handful of Latin American countries, they use vos for second person singular, which has a completely different conjugation from tú.
Tú: Tú quieres estudiar conmigo?
Vos: Vos queres estudiar conmigo?
Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t learn about this until I met someone from Argentina and was a little bit freaked out by the fact that they were using vos and a conjugation I had never seen before. These things exist!! And I think it’s really cool when I uncover new things like this, but I usually uncover these things outside of school or formal realms of study.
Language Ideologies of Native Speakers
To start off, language ideology or ideologies are basically thoughts that people have about language. Example: Arabic is hard, French is a beautiful language, the Southern accent sounds like uneducated people speak it (note: not my thoughts).
One thing that you definitely don’t learn in language classes is how native speakers perceive certain accents or dialects. A few years ago, I remember speaking with someone who lived somewhere in Latin America; this person was saying how Spaniards speak in a funny or a weird way. I’ve also seen on YouTube, people “making fun of” the way that Spaniards talk.
Another experience that I have with this is when I went to study abroad in Brazil. When I told people my program would be in Salvador (Bahia), a LOT of my Brazilian friends that live outside of Bahia (São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, etc.) would always tell me to make sure not to catch the accent that Baianos speak because they didn’t think it sounded nice.
Things like this always surprise me, and if you’ve had similar experiences, this might also surprise you too. But it’s normal for people who live outside of the target language culture to be unaware of these things because we’re not influenced by common thoughts of that society. The people within the culture are obviously influenced by these things because they grew up with people that think the same thoughts, or they encountered a certain situation(s) that made them think that way.
However, to fluidly integrate yourself into your target language society, I think it’s important to know about these thoughts that native speakers have. While you don’t necessarily have to participate in these kinds of interactions or conversations, being socially aware of things beyond “just language” is important.
I feel like pronunciation isn’t something that is really taught in classes. For example, you have your grammar time, you have your reading time, you have your writing time, you may even have your TV show (or novela) or movie-watching time, but I feel like there isn’t really anything dedicated to pronunciation.
You may be asked to speak, read aloud, or sing songs in class which are all things that will help your pronunciation, but rarely (if ever) have I been in a class that spends time talking about the exact pronunciation of things.
Maybe because I’m a languageek turned linguist, I’m referring to a lot of phonetics and phonology here, but it’s just something that I’ve noticed.
History, Geography, Politics
History, geography, and politics isn’t necessarily something you learn in a language class, unless you’re in a more advanced course or learn it in an actual history, geography, or political science class.
I think all these things are something that can be relatively important to integrating yourself into your target language country’s society. I may not know Brazil’s entire history by heart, but I was surprised and really intrigued when I found out that Salvador was Brazil’s first capital, and then Rio de Janeiro became the new capital, and currently the capital is Brasilia. Another thing that may be important to geography is knowing migration patterns. Before knowing so much about Brazil, I never would have thought about how much diversity Brazil has: usually Italians and Germans in the south, Japanese in São Paulo, African descendants in Salvador and surrounding areas, and I think there are also pockets of Korean descendants.
By native speakers (especially Brazilians), I’ve been asked “what do you know about my/our country?” and they’re usually really impressed when I can recall something like that, or can talk about Brazil’s geography.
Having Brazilian friends all over the country has helped me learn what Brazil’s geography is like. Brazil has states like the United States does, while China has provinces and Japan has prefectures. If you’re especially interested in traveling one day to country X, knowing the geography not only helps you decide where you want to go, but it helps in general with recognition of landmarks, dialects, etc.
When Spanish was my main target language, after doing some research, I got really excited when I learned that Spain actually has a lot of co-official languages with Spanish like Galician, Catalan, and Euskara. A lot of people are familiar with the city of Barcelona, but I don’t think it’s common knowledge that Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, where Catalan is spoken. Other multilingual countries include Belgium, Switzerland, China (among others!). I love things like that!
Geography was never a favorite of mine before, but learning languages has specifically gotten me interested in learning the geography of the places that speak my target languages.
The last thing: politics. I’m not a huge fan of politics and I don’t know much about it, but I think knowing the basics is important. Who runs the country, what the people think, why the people do or do not like the person who runs the country, etc. Especially during election time, these kinds of things are a really big topic and being politically aware can help you interact on another level with native speakers.
To wrap up this post, I basically threw a lot of sociolinguistic/linguistic anthropological terms at you, told you what you don’t really see in class and how to integrate these things into your language learning to make you seem like a functional member of the society of your target language.
These things don’t really come over night, these are all things that you gradually learn about as you learn more and more about your target language’s country. These are just things to keep in mind, there are a lot more things that you don’t learn in a language class!
Leave any comments down below, your thoughts or experiences, or the most significant thing that you wish you would have learned in your language class!
Happy learning, guys