The Culture Behind Our Words

Meet Gabriella, who ponders the connection between language and culture through an interesting anecdote about her own experience speaking Spanish!

Over 400 million people speak Spanish as a native language, with 20 countries around the world calling it their official language. Yet, the variances in Spanish across different countries make it seem as if it is a completely different language at times. These variations are inherently tied to each country’s unique cultural make-up, making miscommunications among Spanish speakers quite frequent.

This type of miscommunication has personally happened to me. I am originally from Barranquilla, Colombia, and utilize uniquely Colombian vocabulary at times. This has led to misunderstandings occasionally. Once, in a conversation with a friend from Chile, a conversation about how we say “speed bump” came up. As he said “paso de zebra,” [zebra crossing], I was convinced that this was “speed bump.” However, he soon realized that I had completely misunderstood, and he explained that “paso de zebra” was a pedestrian crossing, while a speed bump was really “lomo de toro” [hump of a bull]. The main reason for my confusion: we call speed bump “policia acstado” [policeman laying down] in Barranquilla.

My friend tried to convince me that the reason behind all of the animal related expressions was that “everything in Chile is plains and animals, not so much in Colombia.” Although this is not likely the true rationale for these expressions, it does hint at the idea that language is intrinsically tied to the respective countries’ history and culture. For instance, on the coast of Colombia where Barranquilla is located, we use the informal in nearly all situations. However, in most parts of Latin America, including the interior of Colombia, the more formal usted is more prevalently used. This prevalence of reflects the more relaxed, informal culture of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Whenever I am speaking Spanish to people from other areas, I can that tell people are surprised by me immediately using , instead of using usted, whereas I see this as the “correct” way to speak Spanish.

Learning languages provides a unique opportunity to learn about other countries’ cultures, in a way that might not be possible otherwise. This is, in my opinion, is one of the greatest values of SLE. Being the educator of one’s own culture is a very powerful tool. Learning other’s culture is exceptionally valuable and something we must continuously do, not only for personal growth, but also for the ability it gives us to effectively engage with world around us.


Gabriella Jassir is a rising junior at Brown University studying Economics and Development Studies. She is originally from Barranquilla, Colombia but has lived in Tampa, Florida since 2002. She will be interning with SLE during the summer. In her spare time, Gabriella enjoys eating dessert, traveling, and watching movies.





Leave a Reply