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Language and Culture Learning Around the Holidays

November 11, 2022

Karen Hedinger

As the last quarter of the calendar year marches on, many of us find ourselves in a season of holidays and celebration. People in the United States often experience holiday frenzy with Halloween in October followed by Thanksgiving in November, and before you know it, Christmas in December. Each holiday has different traditions. For instance, on Thanksgiving, many people gather around a table filled with all kinds of food including turkey, autumn vegetables, and pumpkin pie.

In Mexico, this same time period brings Independence Day, Day of the Dead, Revolution Day, Guadalupe Day, and Christmas. During the week of Day of the Dead, families erect an altar in their houses and in cemeteries where they place specific items. There are photos of deceased relatives, incense, candles, marigolds, water to refresh the spirits, and various kinds of food. My neighbor in Mexico told me all the items on their family altar and the significance of each. She was a language and culture helper and part of my language learning community.

Holidays and other national and local observances are great times to learn language. Language learners can develop their listening comprehension, vocabulary, and usage of new phrases. They can also improve their use of appropriate body language, gestures, and actions. They can observe patterned conversations that take place between people at these times. "¡Feliz navidad!" "Shanah Tovah!" "He is risen. He is risen indeed!" Patriotic holidays provide language learners a great window into political and social values as well as history from the perspective of the people.

So, how can you go about learning all this? How about starting with your language learning community?

Has the grocery store attendant helped you with names and descriptions of the various baked goods they sell at special times of the year? Maybe you can ask the Mexican baker the significance of small plastic dolls that are baked into the "rosca" on Dia de Reyes (Three Kings Day, January 6).

How about making a traditional food with a neighbor and then talking about it? If you are a beginning language learner, you can record vocabulary, phrases, and even the steps you followed in the recipe so you can listen and practice talking about your experience. Once you are comfortable, you can tell someone else what you made and how you made it. More advanced language learners can discover the significance of ingredients, presentation, and serving of the food.

There is a good chance you could be invited to special events during the holiday season. Do you know how to politely accept or decline an invitation? Can you find this out from a tutor, language helper, and/or someone you have gotten to know well enough to ask?

At any level, you can look for written materials authored by people from the place where the language is spoken. Children's books often have simple language yet profound glimpses into values and history that one generation wants to pass on to the next. More advanced language learners can read national commentaries and interpretations of the celebrations. As you build relationships with people, you can ask them questions like, "What is your favorite memory of this holiday?" or "I see a lot of _______. Is there some significance to this?"

Learning language around celebrations and holidays is a great way to grow your understanding, but it's only just the start! With God's help and the help of others, you can begin to see and understand the invisible roots of the culture. One other important point: have fun! Look at it this way: as you learn the language, customs, culture, and activities associated with a new culture, you can celebrate with them! You now have more than just the special days from your own culture, and you can enjoy them even more as you understand the language and the "roots" that are displayed throughout the celebration. THAT is a reason to celebrate!

This article was first published in Global Trellis on November 12th, 2020.

Karen Hedinger, EdD, is director of language acquisition program at CultureBound. Her experience learning several languages allows her to effectively lead and teach our language courses. Karen has led both culture and language training alongside her husband Mark for many years.


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