Learning a Culture Through Language: Discovering the Untranslatable


The famous Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini, one said that “a different language is a different vision of life”. 

Over a year ago I woke up with a restless sensation that was burning inside of me. I felt inpatient to learn Italian, a fourth language for me (after Spanish, my mother language, English and Hebrew). 

I followed that ambition and after countless studying hours I finally earned my Italian language certification. Most people rarely put more weight on their shoulders and willingly give themselves more things to do and additional responsibilities, and that’s because they want to keep their lives easy and simple. At age 23 I decided to take that great challenge to learn a new language, but as I was doing it, I discovered I was learning so much more than words.

I was learning a culture, a way of life, an idiosyncrasy, a different modus vivendi

learning a culture in ItalyWhen I was still studying Italian, I decided to go to Italy to get involved in that culture. Not to be another spectator, but to actually live it and understand it better with the knowledge that I had acquired. A couple of summers ago, I participated in the Walk and Talk program for GeoVisions, and my experience there did not only help improve my language skills, but it actually helped me understand the Italian way of life in a more realistic scenario. Since the language wasn’t a barrier for me any longer, I could experience the Italian “dolce vita” from another perspective. 

When we often say we cannot explain something because there are no words for it, it is sometimes true. But how many people can search for that word or meaning in a different language? Or in my case, 4 different languages? 

I faced the fact that sometimes we cannot express something because it does not exist in that language, but in others it does. For me, a new language also means contacting your emotions differently and therefore, expressing them differently. Having access to this dialect is the key to other people’s minds, and that means their feelings, too. In Italian for example, there’s no way to describe the full expression of the word “prego” because there’s not a real accurate translation of it in English. Even though most people know it, or the word “scarpetta”, that literally means “little shoe”, colloquially speaking it is the action of cleaning the remaining pasta sauce of one’s plate with a piece of bread. That, in essence is moving beyond the words and learning a culture.

As you can see, some words are untranslatable, and if the word is the vessel of an idea, feeling or emotion, we are unable to fully understand the meaning of it until we learn that specific code.

The story of the Tower of Babel explains how God created multiple languages to restrict human relations by hindering communication. For me that is the beauty of it; if we overcome those obstacles that are merely words, we can access a whole new panorama and understand it. To understand is to know, and knowledge is a beautiful and very powerful thing. 

So language is not just the conquest of words, it’s the conquest of a new vision of life waiting to be seen by everyone who dares to take the challenge and overcome it.

learning a culture

~ Shanny

About Shanny: In 2015, Shanny lived with a family in Italy and was a part time au pair, and part time tutor with the Walk and Talk program through GeoVisions. She graduated with a degree in the tourism industry and moved from Mexico to South Carolina 6 months ago. She now works for the Inn and Club at Harbor Town, a luxurious boutique hotel that is rated #1 on the island, #12 in the US according TripAdvisor and #86 in the world according to Travel and Leisure. Shanny shares a workplace with people from all over the world: Morocco, UK, Croatia, Ireland, Portugal, Jamaica, Sweden, and The Netherlands. Follow more of Shanny’s adventures on Instagram.