How To Learn About A Culture Without Knowing Its Language?

Learning a new language can be challenging. Is it worth learning the language to know a culture?

How To Learn About A Culture Without Knowing Its Language?
Photo by Niketh Vellanki / Unsplash

When travelling or relocating to a new place, common sense advice is to learn the local language. There are many benefits to this. Yet, the main reason to learn a new language is ease of communication, from making new friends to getting things done or even ordering your meals the way you like them.

However, learning a new language is challenging for many. It's like learning how to operate a Mac when you have been using Windows all your life. Or learning to write with your left hand when you are used to your right. Can You Learn About A Culture Without Learning Their Language?

Yes, you CAN!

While there are many ways to do this, there are three broad methods of learning about a culture, which are:

  • Research
  • Observe
  • Get Involved

It's undeniable that language is essential to understanding culture. Still, language acquisition can be complex and not a good use of time if you're only in the new culture for a short period. Also, language acquisition alone is not enough to learn about a new culture.

There are many local and regional nuances that a language course may not reveal. For example, the English language itself is reliant on its local context. A non-native speaker might have trouble understanding South African, Irish or even Singaporean English if only exposed to American English. However, language learning will undoubtedly help you further understand and adapt to a new culture.

Before delving into these methods, you must ask and reflect upon your motivation and goals. What do you wish to gain from learning about this new culture? To help you answer this question, we'll first discuss what culture is and what it entails.

With languages, you are at home anywhere. Edward De Waal

What is Culture?

Essentially, culture is the unspoken rule of how things work within a group or a community. Cultural groups can be as small as a couple of people or as large as a nation or an ethnic group.

Cultures may use various symbols to represent feelings, instructions, events, visions, hopes, beliefs, etc. Language is the vehicle, an auditory and visual symbol, for conveying these messages.

While language is vital in learning a new culture, many other elements can help you gain knowledge about the new culture. Of the many aspects that make up a culture, two essential areas can help a cultural newbie better understand and adapt to the new culture.

Social Structures

Another critical component is the social structures. Social structures are how a group chooses to organise themselves and set rules to guide people's behaviour. The groups of people can be a family, community, workplace or even a nation. The rules of conduct and organisation of the group can be formally or informally established. Social structures focus on the organisation of relationships. Some examples are the economic, legal, political, educational, healthcare, and many others on a macro level.

On a more micro level, it'll be the relationships between the various roles within the workplace. When in a new cultural environment, observe and ask:

  • What are the different roles within the group?
  • How do they relate to each other?
  • How does the group make decisions?
  • Does everyone have a say, or only specific individuals?
  • How are the decisions executed?
  • What are the undertones within the group concerning their relationships?

Understanding the group’s social structures will help you decipher the rules and principles accompanying them and your possible role and position.

Behaviours & Interactions

Apart from the social structure of how people relate to one another, observing individual behaviours and their interactions can also be meaningful.

Observe and note their gestures, speech, facial expressions, interaction with others, and the environment. Do they speak loudly or softly? Is touch among people acceptable? How do opposite genders treat each other? How about between older people and the youth? How do the locals respond to foreigners?

These interactions will give you an idea of what is welcomed, acceptable or offensive behaviour. You would want to avoid offending someone and breaking relationships accidentally!

The Three Methods of Learning a Culture

There are many ways to learn about a culture without knowing the language. Three methods are available: Research, Observation, and Getting Involved.


The first method is through research. Use your preferred search engine and enter keywords associated with the new culture.

Many expatriates, travellers, students, bloggers, vloggers and podcasters willingly share cultural observations, experiences and insights online. Also, search for news, movies, television shows, books, music or even art from the new culture. Millions of content are out there; you'll surely find content in your native language. Even if the content might be spoken in a different language, watching movies or television shows will give you a sense of the new culture's social structure and interactions.

Remember to tune in to the local news channel in your hotel room or skim through their local papers. Once, on a trip to Nepal, I flipped through a local English newspaper and noticed that the Nepali and Malaysian economic relationship were on the front page. To my surprise, such news never made it into the Malaysian newspapers. Reading the local newspaper gave insight into the importance of the economic relationships with Malaysia and how the locals regard Malaysians.

A few observations and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning lead to truth. Alexis Carrel


Observation is one of the most powerful skills anyone could have. While observation may seem simple, this skill has many layers and nuances. Skilled observation involves

  • Being present
  • Staying silent
  • Active Listening
  • Making mental notes
  • Reflecting
  • Being curious
  • Sifting between what has happened and your personal biases, interpretations, assumptions, and projections of the situation.

These observations can provide insight into the new culture’s unspoken rules, values, principles, and norms. After observing, find someone you trust who understands your culture and the local culture to confirm your interpretations of your observations.

However, be aware of your own biases and judgements. Don't be mistaken that a handful of instances has meaning for the entire cultural group!

For example, while strolling the streets of Yangon, I noticed red markings on the floor and realised they were the residue from chewing betel nuts. From this alone, I might assume that everyone in Yangon loves to chew betel nuts! However, after speaking to a local friend about betel nut chewing, she explained how locals view the habit as unhealthy and unhygienic. If I hadn't asked, I would've stuck to my initial assumption.

Get Involved

Finally, there is no better way to learn about a culture than to get involved. Take the time to interact with the locals and explore the environment. You can take a few hours or even a few days to wander around. Go where the locals go, such as the local markets, bars, shopping centres, restaurants, museums, or parks. Take the public transport to a new place. I enjoy visiting the local supermarket to see different food products and try distinct flavours.

Participate in a local event, such as a seminar, networking event, music concert, art exhibition, or the local theatres. Find the local hobby group and join their meetups if you have a hobby, such as dancing, hiking, yoga, or even bird watching. There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer for a cause you deeply love and give back to the local community.

Getting involved will allow you to interact, assess and confirm your reflections and learnings from your research and personal observations.

Can you truly learn about another culture without knowing the language?

Indeed you can! However, language will always be essential to learning a new culture. When you skip out on learning the language, you will miss out on the opportunity to connect at a deeper level, engage with the community and evolve alongside the people of that cultural group. Consider tackling that new language when you have picked up the courage and confidence. In the meantime, remember to research, observe and get involved.

This post is updated from the originally published post on Culture Spark Global on 28 October 2021 and written by the same author, Ling Ling Tai.