Learning a new language opens up a new world of possibilities. There are millions of new people who you can interact with and thousands of new opportunities and jobs that you can pursue.
It’s probably the reason why you started learning English in the first place.
But the truth is a language isn’t just a set of words, phrases and patterns. It’s much more than that.
A language contains culture, history, beliefs and behaviours.
Does this make learning a language more interesting? It sure does!
Does this make learning a language more difficult? A bit.
And this is something that I was asked recently by an English learner from Taiwan who is currently studying in the UK. She asked:
This is a great question, and it really shows you how important it is to understand the culture as well as the language.
In this article, you’re going to learn some things which will probably save you a lot of embarrassment. You’re going to learn how to behave in three different cultural situations in the UK. You’ll also learn how you can learn more about the different cultures of the English language.
In the UK, door etiquette is one of the most important parts of daily life.
Take a look at this video:
Of course this isn’t just in the UK, it’s the US, too.
If someone holds a door open for you (like the video) and you don’t acknowledge the person for doing it, they will think you are rude.
Avoiding a situation like the one in the video is really easy though. All you need to do is say:
And if you’re walking through a door and someone is behind you, hold the door for them! This is such a simple part of British culture, but it will make a huge difference to your experience.
British people love to queue. It’s actually a cultural phenomenon. People queue everywhere they can:
And if there is one thing that British people hate, it’s people who jump the queue. These are people who don’t wait. They just push in front of others.
Embrace the British culture and queue up!
But what happens if you need to go to the toilet or you need to quickly grab or put something back? What should you do then?
You can ask someone to ‘save your place’. Just say:
And the people behind you will save your place in the queue. Because that is also a part of British culture.
In the UK, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are used a lot.
But, if you really want someone to help you, don’t give them demands, commands or orders. So let’s have a little ‘British Culture quiz’.
Read the following scenarios and think, “What would a British person say?”:
You have bought some presents for your family back home and you want to send them back. You go to the post office and talk to the cashier.
She asks you, “How can I help?”
What do you say?
You’ve bought some things from the supermarket and the shop assistant gives you a bag. The bag isn’t big enough and you need another one.
What do you say?
You’re at the language school and you need the school to give you a letter so that you can open a bank account in the UK. You meet with the administrator to ask them for a letter.
What do you say?
You’re taking the bus for the first time. You know the name of the stop that you need to get off at, but you’re not sure where it is. You’re buying a ticket from the driver.
What do you say?
How did you do on the British Culture Quiz?
The answer for each scenario is 2!
Try to use ‘could’ and change your order into a request. This does two things: it shows what you’d like the person to do -and- it makes you seem polite.
And, avoid words like ‘give’ because they seem a bit too strong.
Like I said at the start of this article, learning and understanding the culture is important if you want to fit in. In fact, knowing how to act is sometimes just as important as knowing what to say.
If you’re currently living in an English speaking country, like the UK, you have the tools that you need to learn how to act and fit in.
“What are these tools?”, I hear you ask.
Your eyes and your ears, of course!
While you’re out, take some time to people watch and observe how others act and what they say.
You won’t just learn natural English, but you’ll also learn a lot about how to act and behave like a local.
Here are a few things for you to try observing:
If you’re not in the UK, you could try watching some TV shows from the UK. Lindsay from Lindsay Does Languages created a good list of British TV shows. If you want to learn more about British culture, try this Twitter account.
Learning a language is also learning a culture. You can really fit in with the locals if you act like them and talk like them. For people visiting the UK, learning how to be polite and how to make requests will really impress the local people.
And if you’re not visiting the UK, you could learn the same things about the country that you will be visiting.
What should you do now?
Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also a lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.