Introducing Culture Through Language

A Ukrainian who moved to Norway is taking free language classes for immigrants and just posted a text in Norwegian that appears in the beginner’s language textbook. The Ukrainian Facebook is peeing itself with laughter and I just have to share:

“I wake up at 6 am. I feel exhausted and sleepy. I want coffee. I drink 3 cups and it helps a little. I must have breakfast but I don’t feel like eating. Then I go to work. My bus arrives at 7 am.”

I had the same bout of hysterical laughter as when I read the following dialogue in a Russian textbook:

“- Mom, would you like coffee or tea? – It’s OK, son, I don’t need anything. Eat and don’t mind your old mama. – Mom, seriously, what can I order for you? Coffee? A piece of cake? A fruit salad? – I’m fine, son. Just get me a glass of milk and a raisin bun. – Here they are, mom! – They are for you, son! I’m happy when I see you eat!”

When you show this textbook page to literally any Russian speaker, they immediately complete the dialogue with, “Why aren’t you eating? Don’t you love your mama at all? I knew you hated me!” It’s a cultural thing. 

15 thoughts on “Introducing Culture Through Language”

    1. They think the most important thing to communicate about their culture to newcomers is this extremely depressive “I wake up and I’m already exhausted” narrative. Cubans, for instance drink tons of coffee. And Dominicans. And they take a lot of buses. But they’d never come up with a text like this for a textbook. Because it’s not part of a culturally appropriate, shared narrative.


      1. So these are textbooks and exercises designed for adult learners by native speakers?
        Do the ESL classes provide similar examples of unintentional humor in your experience?

        For Kannada no such courses exist. I have only encountered those aimed at children (who might be just learning to write.)


      2. The Scandinavians are all very obsessed with both drinking coffee and talking about drinking coffee. I don’t know if you ever read any of Henning Mankell’s novels, but he could barely write three pages without someone making coffee, drinking coffee, or offering someone else coffee; it’s almost humorous once you start to notice the pattern. So definitely a culturally relevant text for immigrants.


        1. Karl Ove Knausgaard also depicts a great deal of coffee-drinking on every page. I hadn’t realized it was a general thing.


        2. “Scandinavians are all very obsessed with both drinking coffee”

          The Scandinavian countries have extremely low scores in Uncertainty Avoidance (meaning among other things they are not threatened by new situations and daily life is not marked by a lot of subjective stress).

          People in those kinds of cultures have a tendency to fall into a kind of cultural lethargy and they use caffeine carriers like coffee to goose themselves into staying awake and motivated – it’s also the reason the British drink tea (another low uncertainty avoidance culture and another caffeine carrier).

          The countries with higher levels of Uncertainty Avoidance (more southern and eastern europe) tend to drink more alcohol (to relieve daily stress.


          1. Interesting. I wonder how the cost factor plays into that? With the exception of Denmark, the Scandinavians tend to tax alcohol at very high rates. Lots of people can’t afford to get drunk every day even if they wanted to.


  1. ” “I wake up and I’m already exhausted” narrative”

    I think it’s a life skills thing, stressing the importance of getting up and catching that bus to work even if you don’t feel like it.

    Norway (and some other countries in the area) have had a lot of bad experiences of ‘immigrants’ who don’t understand or resist that kind of thing. The problem is that the ones that don’t need that lesson will find it odd or funny and those that do need it will simply disregard it.


    1. Yes, absolutely, it’s a survival culture. Their entire stock of folk tales us about getting up in the darkness and bracing for a day of surviving the snow and the cold. The immigrant who will be happy and successful will fall in love with this way of being in the world and will totally dig it. And the immigrant who won’t love it will spend the rest of their life whining on Ukrainian Facebook. From what I know about my people, 99,99% of us will take route 2 and whine on FB until their dying death.


  2. Great examples, I especially love the Norwegian one. Sounds to me like I would be happy in Norway. 🙂
    When learning Dutch in the Netherlands, I encountered (roughly) the following two examples in the textbook:

    Fatima’s son is ill, he has a fever of 38 degrees. Fatima wants to call the doctor. No, says her neighbour Nienke, we do not call the doctor for such minor illnesses.
    What do you do with garbage in YOUR country? Mohammed says: In Marocco, we throw in on the street. Nienke says: In the Netherlands, we put it in the garbage bin!

    So offensive… And it reflects Dutch culture perfectly, their weird relationship with health care and their lack of tact. So you’re right, if immigrants are put off by these examples, it is a sign that they won’t be happy there. 🙂 It would be great to collect such examples from text books all over the world. So revealing…


    1. “So offensive… And it reflects Dutch culture perfectly”

      I recall reading complaints of foreigners facing Dutch citizenship exams which are full of etiquette questions (like if your host(ess) offers you cookies how many do you take?)


      1. I hope that is not true. But it sounds like it might be. 🙂 We once discussed proper behaviour when invited to a Dutch birthday party in Dutch class. Only take one cookie or one slice of cake, plus you don’t only congratulate the person with a birthday but their family as well. I don’t know why the Dutch are always seen as tolerant and liberal, they actually seemed very rigid and judgemental to me.


        1. For immigrants, Western Europe is extraordinarily inhospitable. Which is why it kills me when people rubbish the US which is beyond hospitable and kind to immigrants. Just on the basic human level.


        2. Someone who knew the Netherlands pretty well (American with a Dutch wife, spoke the language well and lived there for several years) once told me that people tend to think the Dutch are extremely tolerant and liberal because most foreigners only ever go to Amsterdam and Amsterdam is extremely tolerant and liberal. But the rest of the country is nothing like Amsterdam.


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