Language and Culture Learning around the Holidays

November 12, 2020 | 0 comments

As the last quarter of the calendar year marches on, many of us find ourselves in a season of holidays and celebrations. People in the United States often experience holiday frenzy with Halloween quickly followed by Thanksgiving and, before you know it, Christmas. 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 contains 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 often in the 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. (See “How to Build a ‘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, as well as improve their use of appropriate body language, gestures, and actions. They can also learn 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 people’s perspective. (See “Three tips for learning history”)

So, how can you go about learning all this?

How about starting with your language learning community? 

Has the bread store attendant helped you with names and descriptions of the various baked goods he/she sells 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 Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day, January 6).

How about making a traditional food with a neighbor or language helper 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 these particular celebrations. 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 authors’ 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 language learning, but you can learn so much more! With God’s help and the help of your target language and culture’s people, you can begin to see and understand the invisible roots of the culture and language. (See “The Culture Tree: Consider the Roots”)

One other important point: HAVE FUN!!! Look at it this way. As you learn the language, customs, culture, and activities associated with your host culture’s holiday, you can celebrate more than just the special days from your home 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!


The “One Another” Challenge is available until November 15! Join before it goes away :).

Image by Krzysztof Jaracz from Pixabay 

Karen Hedinger

Karen Hedinger

Lover of languages. Director of CultureBound’s LanguageCourse. Wife. Learner.

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