Language Learning: Cultural Insights

This is a “content set” for family in Spanish.

If you’ve learned another language before, you know how important “content sets” are.  We almost always learn new words in groups according to their context.  You’d learn the names of vegetables as a group, for instance, or the rooms of the house, or parts of the body.  This method gives some order to the endless barrage of strange words coming our way each day.

We’ve found out some very revealing things about our host culture as we’ve learned vocabulary.  The Slovak language uses some words that we don’t have in English, and vise-versa.  These differences in languages can be “red flags,” alerting us to the differences between the cultures that use them.  Think of the often-cited example of the fact that the Inuit (Eskimo) people have many words for “snow.”

One of these areas that sparked an insight for us is words for family relationships.  To start, Slovak has all the words that we are used to – mother (matka), father (otec – remember the “c” in Slovak has a “ts” sound), sister (sestra) and brother (brat… pronounced “braht,” not that other word you used to call your sibling).  You have a grandmother (babička – the č has a “ch” sound) and grandfather (dedko).  These you would expect.

But in Slovakia you don’t just have cousins – you have a boy cousin (bratranec) and a girl cousin (sesternica).  You can’t lump them all together as just “cousins” – you have to talk about them separately.  There are multiple words for “uncle” and “aunt,” depending on which side of the family you’re talking about.  There are even words for the relationship between the parents of two married people.  My parents and Tanya’s parents are svatovci, and my mother would call Tanya’s mother her svatka.  These are just a few examples.

Why does this matter?  Because family is incredibly important in Slovak culture.  It’s important to all of us, of course, but in Slovakia and nearby countries the family unit has a special significance.  To them, “close” family includes many members that we would ordinarily consider as “extended” family.  Many families live in close proximity to one another, and very often these families will live in the same three-story house – elderly grandparents on the ground floor, middle-aged parents on the middle floor, and adult children on the top floor.

When family has this kind of significance, you have to have more words to talk about it!

What significant words does our language have?  What insights can you learn by looking at the words we use regularly?

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