Learning Mandarin without learning anything about Chinese culture is like eating a peanut butter sandwich without the jelly. It tastes ok, but without the jelly the peanut butter ends up sticking to the top of your mouth. Not ideal. Not ideal at all.
No wonder experts say that language and culture are inseparable. It’s the perfect peanut butter & jelly combo, like Bonnie and Clyde or Lois and Clark. Learning about the culture along with the language makes learning sweeter, more attractive.
What is Culture?
Culture is what impacts traditions, beliefs, values and relationships with others and it's the language part that facilitates these interactions. Language provides the means by which culture is shared from one generation to another. So that means you'll be able to learn the basics of Mandarin language without studying Chinese culture, but (and it's a big BUT) in order to fully master Chinese you'll need to understand the culture.
Understanding Chinese culture helps a language learner understand why certain terms are used. It helps us better understand the thought process as to why something is said (or sometimes not said). Let’s look at a few examples.
你吃了吗?(Nǐ chī le ma?)
A typical greeting in Chinese is: “Nǐ chī le ma?” (你吃了吗?) which translates to “Have you eaten yet?” To a foreigner it might seem like an invitation to sit down and have a free meal. But nope, that's not what it means. Exploring Chinese culture helps you understand that Chinese people place a high importance on the value of food. In the past there wasn't always enough food to eat, so asking if you've eaten actually shows that a person cares about your health and well-being. With this in mind, this typical greeting or conversation starter actually means: “How are you?”
Let's move on to numbers. Have you ever been in an elevator in China and you notice that in some buildings the 4th floor doesn’t exist? ! Pourquoi? In Chinese culture, numbers hold a high symbolic importance, the numbers 4 and 8 being extremely important. The number 4 ( 四 sì ) is viewed as bad luck because its pronunciation is the same as death (死 sǐ), although the tone is different. On the other hand, the number 8 ( 八 bā) sounds similar to the Chinese word for wealth or prosper (發 fā) and is a very sought after number. When choosing the date for important events, Chinese people are careful to avoid certain dates or specifically choose certain dates based on the meaning of numbers.
Giving Gifts
Ahh, the etiquette of gift-giving! In Chinese culture, the recipient often declines a gift at least 2 or 3 times with polite words before accepting. As a Chinese language learner, you might understand the Chinese words they're using to say 'no' but not the reason why they don't want your gift. And so without learning about the culture, you wouldn't realize that the giver of the gift is expected to insist that the recipient accepts the gift. Not wanting to be seen as greedy, it is customary to initially decline a gift. And now you know! :)
Final Thoughts
Languages differ greatly from one country to another, but as we explore culture we find that although differences exist, we actually have much more in common with others. Understanding culture can broaden our horizons of how we view the world and increase our adaptability. Chinese culture is one of the world's most ancient cultures, it dates back thousands of years. Chinese culture includes architecture, music, literature, cuisine, philosophy, beliefs and much more. Combining language learning with culture understanding is a great way to enrich your learning experience!

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