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Top Posts of 2012 #3: The Cultural Nuances of Language

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

The 'Wrong' Way to Answer 'How Are You?'
by Zita MF

Do you know how to answer when an American asks, “How are you?” Zita discussed the slightly confusing protocol in another post that garnered quite a bit of attention in 2012.

Photo by Nick Hoang
Photo by Nick Hoang

It’s not a real question, she explained. "I’m expected to respond, 'Good' or 'Fine,' and ask the other person how they are, to which they will also respond, 'Good.'"

Read it: "The Wrong Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’"

"To this day, this style of greeting strikes me as an abuse of a question with which people show care and concern to one another in my culture," Zita wrote, but it says something important about American culture:
In general, people from the U.S. do not like to express their emotions to strangers or acquaintances. They prefer to put on a permanent smile and mask their other feelings. The U.S. culture is based on individualism – the idea that one should only rely on one’s self and family – and this often leads them to avoid getting too close to others, including by using meaningful expressions in ways that might seem superficial to foreigners.

Zita decided, "[O]ne of the challenges and the beauties of living abroad is embracing the peculiarities of the host country. To me this means learning how to speak not only the language but also the culture."

Learning to speak both the language and the culture takes practice, and a willingness to make mistakes, a fact Anil was kind enough to share in one of our most brutally honest and funny posts of the year.

Read it: "Anil Explains Why You Should Never Be Embarrassed to Speak a Foreign Language"

With aisles like these, finding what you want in a supermarket isn't easy, especially if you're too shy to ask for help (Creative Commons photo by Kerry Lannert)
With aisles like these, finding what you want in a supermarket isn't easy, especially if you're too shy to ask for help (Creative Commons photo by Kerry Lannert)

When he first arrived in the U.S., Anil wrote, he kept to himself, worried that his English wasn’t good enough to communicate with others. But that all changed after a trip to the grocery store when he had to ask a staff person for help finding an item:
I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t remember the word: raisin. I felt my face was burning, but I also knew I had to cope with the problem.

First I told her, “I want to buy some grapes which are not full with juice.” She threw me a gaze and said she couldn’t understand me. I tried another way. I said, “I am looking for the opposite of fresh grapes.” She was just shocked even more by what I had said and repeated, “I don’t understand.” I decided to take my last chance: “Do you have wrinkled, dried, ugly grapes?”

After the staff person stopped laughing, they got to talking and eventually became friends. "Just try to express yourself," Anil concluded. "It is the perfect way to improve yourself, and creating your own way brings laughter, new memories, and stories to share."

"Just express yourself" was one of many pieces of advice Sava gave in his in-depth look at techniques for improving English fluency, one of our most useful posts of 2012.

He also suggested listening as much as possible, including by eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations ("which is great until you get caught"), and using a mirror to watch yourself as you speak.

Read it: "Crafting Your Art of English Fluency"

"Watching yourself as you speak helps you visualize the way you’re moving your mouth. One thing I personally realized is that in English you have to hold your tongue a very particular way to pronounce certain words," Sava wrote.

"Watching and listening to myself as I practiced speaking also helped me notice that I project a better sound in English when I use a lower and deeper tone with my voice."

Still want more tips on improving your English? Shree wrote about his approaches, adopted while studying for the TOEFL exam earlier this year. He built English study into his normal routine, using things like talking to friends or listening to the radio as opportunities to practice his language skills.

Read it: "Why the TOEFL is More Important Than Just One Test, and How That Can Help You Succeed"

As Zita noted, "One of the most challenging aspects of being an international student is that you not only have to master a foreign language, but also to recognize the meaning that hides behind the words." But reaching that point is "all about finding the approaches that work best for you," said Sava. "Like art, learning a language is something that different people experience in different ways."

Other top posts of 2012:
#5: Navigating and Defeating Negative Stereotypes
#4: The Surprising Links Between Food and Identity
#2: Keeping Standardized Tests in Perspective
#1: Taking Responsibility is the Key to Academic Success