Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Language constantly evolves, as does culture. When trying to understand and speak a culture’s language, we may sometimes wish this evolution would slow down long enough for us to “catch up”, particularly when it comes to the explosion of idioms, slang, jargon, and specific references to popular culture.
Still, according to the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, speaking is the social activity of creating and playing “language games”. Any of us can detect the playful, creative nature of language as we speak our native tongues, and other languages too.
In the American comedy film Legally Blonde (2001), a smug, young aspiring politician, Warner, decides to end his relationship with the film’s (yes, blonde) heroine, Elle, with this rationale:
“If I'm gonna be a senator, well I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”
You may immediately understand Warner’s reference, but if you do not, you are not alone. The film’s writers likely knew that playing with such a reference could land as humorous and significant on quite a number of levels, even if the fictional character delivering the line and the fictional character hearing it think they are just talking about superficialities like hair color or a “serious” demeanor.
There is much to be discussed about these culturally-specific parts of language – especially a language that is not your first -- but the best advice is to spend some quality time exploring and enjoying them, both with and without a coach. Become curious about what a word or phrase means -- not to mention its origins, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways it changes depending on context. Such curiosity can be an integral part of your strategies for effective face-to-face communication.
Once you embrace the playful, improvisational nature of language, well, it’s all downhill from there.
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