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31 Jan 2017

Learning languages ‘para comerte el mundo’

With the simultaneous advance of technology and globalisation, there seem to be few disadvantages to studying languages. One of the amazing benefits (particularly within the context of a university degree) is the freedom you give yourself with regard to your future. Whereas a student of law or medicine may have a designated path laid out for them, with languages you may choose between multiple fields. For example, as a linguist you may work both with the graduated law student hired by their firm during business negotiations between American and Mexican companies, and with the graduated medicine student translating medical reports in a research lab.

However, languages are more than just a form of communication; they are a gateway to making sense of the culture, the decisions, the societies of our global brothers and sisters. They are key to overcoming international struggles and feuds, and they champion democracy and rational thought and action between nations. Just flicking on the news for five or ten minutes, it is not difficult to observe the immense divide between the East and the West. It comes as no surprise therefore that languages are becoming more important than ever before to bridge this gap and bring understanding and clarity of language and culture where fear, disarray and intolerance currently reside.


So, what does this have to do with the actual title of the blog? Well, let’s unpack it – how would you explain ‘comerte el mundo’? Upon first glance, a student of Spanish would typically translate ‘comer’ as ‘to eat’, thus leading them to the rather amusing phrase ‘to eat the world’. However, in this context, this phrase is an idiom roughly translating as ‘to take on the world’. Much better. The crucial word here is roughly. ‘Comerte el mundo’ is not simply taking on the world – it has more gravity in Spanish, connoting that the person is attempting to have a positive effect on their surroundings and culture, and that their change will be observed and appreciated by others. We thus observe that not all words and phrases translate exactly, with some completely lacking equivalents when converting them from one language to another.

Let’s take a few more examples to explain this:

Botellón – a group of young people socialising and drinking in public
Tutear ­– to refer to someone as (as opposed to usted)
Sobremesa – the point in a meal where the food is no longer on the table but the conversation is still flowing

Analysing all three of these words, it becomes obvious that they have no direct translation to English because they are inextricably linked to Spanish culture. Think about it: botellón is a cultural reaction on the part of young Spaniards to the simultaneous rise in alcohol prices in bars and clubs and fall in national economic strength. Tutear has no equivalent because English makes no distinction between directly addressing a friend and a social superior – in both cases the pronoun ‘you’ is used. Finally, sobremesa denotes the strong cultural link between food and socialising in Spain – meals may be a gateway for conversation, but conversation will still continue without a meal. In the UK however, mealtimes are not awarded the same social importance and thus in many households, there is little to no socialising present when food is on the table.
You see now that even the title of this blog is an apt example of why learning languages to better understand culture is so essential for continued global co-operation. So, whether you have a passion for Persian culture, a love for linguistics, or even a desire to master Dutch, studying languages will undoubtedly enrich your academic, working and social life and give you the chance ‘para comerte el mundo’.



Gabbi Brinning,
English Teacher, Iberlingva


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