Language as a door key to culture

Many people start learning a language because they are interested in that specific culture which belongs to the people who speak that language. Unless you are into a specific subject on Arts or Politics/Sociology context, you do not usually get down to 'studying' a culture. You do not say, for example: "I have bought a textbook on Chinese culture and now I am learning intermediate Chinese architecture, next lesson is about regional Chinese operas". Therefore, studying a language has been reputed as the most effective and entertaining way of having access to a specific culture from a broader point of view and then getting down to details on one's own choice.

Once we acknowledge that the study of a language brings up substantial knowledge about that culture it relates to, two questions may arise: how does that happen, and to what extent? I will try to answer both of them by comparing what I know about two close countries: Norway and Sweden. The main variable to be taken into account is the fact that I have been studying Norwegian actively on a daily basis since August 2012, while I have never studied Swedish actively. I may be able to read some Swedish based on my knowledge of Norwegian, but this is not the subject here: we are trying to understand how much of the Norwegian culture I managed to learn about thanks to my studies through multiple resources such as textbooks for English-speakers, textbooks for immigrants, podcasts, novels and TV series.

When it comes to music, I might actually be able to mention more Swedish artists who sing in Swedish than Norwegian artists who sing in Norwegian, but this is related to the fact that I used to research music on my own, and was particularly interested in the Swedish scene. As for arts in general, I can surely mention Eduard Munch but I cannot think of a Swedish painter; I know about the Frognerparken in Oslo with its sculptures, but I cannot mention a Swedish one. I am considering only spontaneous recall, so, for example, I forgot the name of the author of the sculptures at Frognerparken which I saw in two textbooks, and had to look it up: it is Gustav Vigeland who did them.

I can mention Henrik Ibsen as a classical Norwegian writer, and I am sure to have read about several others, but I cannot think of a Swedish one. As for contemporary ones, Jostein Gaarder from Norway and Stieg Larsson from Sweden are indeed very popular on my country, and I would know about them even if I were not into languages.

Now let us move a bit into Geography: I can mention three Swedish cities with their original names: Göteborg, Malmö (thanks to its curved high-rise building) and Stockholm. In Norway: Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø, Trondheim, Lillehammer, Lillestrøm, Arendal, Kristiansand, Stavanger. I know that Norway is divided in large regions such as Nord-Norge, Vestlandet, Sørlandet, Østlandet. I have no idea how Sweden is divided.

Tourist spots: the twin towers of Postgirobygget, the aforementioned Frogneparken, Bryggen, in Bergen, the ancient railroad that connects Bergen and Oslo. I remember reading about a glass design center in the region of Oslo, a sky center and several fjords, of course. I cannot mention a tourist spot in Sweden.

It is noticeable that my memory is not serving me that well when it comes to remembering actual names, but, to summarize, I would like to mention the topics I read something about during my Norwegian studies: Norway's healthcare and social security systems; public holidays; festivals, medieval, modern and contemporary history; the main artists for each field, such as classical music, sculpture, painting, literature. I know nothing about these topics regarding Sweden. Therefore, I believe one gets to learn a lot about the culture of the place where the language they study is spoken, to some extent that this place becomes less and less "foreign". When I traveled to places that spoke languages I had studied, I had the feeling that I could go on and explore a lot by myself based not only on my linguistical knowledge, but also on the important insights I got about the daily life there. This was true for France, Spain but even for smaller places like Aruba and Curaçao, where they spoke Papiamento.