Learning languages and culture with the help of memes

Learning languages and culture with the help of memes

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MEMES are one of the subjects that most young people like to talk about because they are so popular and influential all over the world, you can find them in all languages, designed for everybody – even the elderly. You can find them everywhere: on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and there are even platforms designed for this kind of content, where people post memes, which eventually reach one of the social media sites listed above.

What’s the deal with memes?

Indeed, how did this even become a worldwide phenomenon? Let’s begin with a short introduction about it. According to Wikipedia, a meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that comes to life through imitation and carries some kind of symbolistic value. The word itself first appeared in a 1976 book written by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), in which he described a meme as a self-replicating unit of transmission, in biological terms. Practically, it has the same principle as today, but it was back then used to define a different purpose. However, the first visual representation of a meme appeared during World War II in a graffito called “Kilroy was here”.  It became quite popular in the US because it was associated with GIs (initials used for the US soldiers) depicting a  bald-headed man with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with his fingers clutching the wall. But, if I were to talk about <strong>memes</strong> as they are today, well they became most popular with the development of the internet and computers in general.

Yes, it might sound absurd, but language memes can help you learn languages or improve skills, and not only that but you can also learn more about a country with the help of memes than you do during classes. That doesn’t mean you have to skip them – go to school, you need your education! What I mean is that language memes represent an easy and funny way of achieving some language skills and cultural knowledge, and here is how to do it:

They are funny, so it’s easier to learn something that makes you smile or laugh

The main purpose of memes is to satirise, make fun of, mock, mess with people, situations or events in order to make their audience laugh and respond positively with a like, comment, share, etc.

Today, they represent a means of entertainment – we love scrolling for memes and sharing them to our friends to laugh and smile together; of information – believe it or not, some people take their news from internet memes inspired by present or past events but have you ever thought they could also be used for learning purposes?

Search for some language memes in a language you are studying and check all the unknown words in a dictionary. It’s the same principle as when you’re reading a book, just a smoother and funnier one. If you are a beginner, it would be a good idea to start off by translating some foreign language memes and then moving on to the much heavier stuff, such as reading books, articles, newspapers. As for the cultural stuff, let’s make an experiment:

Interested in what happened in those two wars? Go and find the answer in a book now. See? Have you ever thought about searching for information regarding these historic events before? That’s right, you will say that there is nothing to learn from memes – but they give an impulse to search for information yourself. And once you find it, the meme will make sense, and you’ll feel satisfied.

You can find memes in all languages

That’s the beauty of memes, you can find them even in languages you have never even thought of. They are surely a golden mine for non-English speakers because the internet is full of English language memes and it’s so easy to learn it because the majority follow the same pattern. It is funny that you can find them in many other languages: German language memes, memes in Spanish and Portuguese etc. If you really can’t find a specific meme pattern in a language, just make them yourself and show them to people who speak that language. Be confident and learn from mistakes, it is the same as when you write some composition for a class and the teacher has to correct it. Here are some examples of such patterns:

English memeGerman TranslationRomanian Translation
ImageLern Englisch aus Büchern
Lern Englisch aus Memes

Să înveți engleză din cărți
Să înveți engleză din meme-uri

ImageWenn du dich über das Erlernen einer Sprache auslassen, aber aber noch nicht einmal angefangen hast

Atunci când te lauzi că înveți o limbă străină, dar nici măcar nu te-ai apucat

ImageIch und die Jungen bereit, Sprachen zu lernen, um internationale Damen zu beeindrucken

Eu și băieții gata să învățăm limbi străine ca să impresionăm domnișoare din toată lumea

ImageWenn du nach einem anderen Land fährst, aber kennst nur ‘Hallo’ und ‘Danke’
Es ist nicht viel, aber es ist ehrliche Arbeit.

Atunci când mergi în altă țară, dar nu știi să zici decât “Bună ziua” și “La revedere”
Nu e mult, dar e muncă cinstită

You can connect with people from all over the world through memes

What is fascinating about the meme community is that people from different countries can socialise and befriend each other. That is a wonderful way to bring people together with the same interest and passions, and if you are willing to learn languages, that might be one of the best ways to get in touch with a native that can help you. Like I said before, create your own language memes and share them with people; if it’s someone who shares the same passion for memes as you do, then all the better. Not only will you learn languages, but you can also get to know about the country of the people you chat with. Ask about their culture, their history, aspects regarding the society, how the people are, what their customs are. And this way you get another bonus, maybe you want to visit a country, it is best to ask directly the people that live there and get an honest opinion, at least it is more accurate than some websites that might only promote it on a superficial level.

They are perfect tools for beginners

And that is because the text isn’t usually very hard to understand, or too long, because it cannot cover the picture. Taking that into consideration, it is a great opportunity to learn some vocabulary, so write down every single unknown word, translate the sentence, make some yourself, respecting that pattern. Regarding the grammar, the majority of the texts contain simple grammatical structures, so if you want to learn something more complex, it is better that you check a book. In English, for example, it is highly improbable to meet sentences using past perfect simple or future perfect tense or direct/indirect speech. Same for German, there are few sentences containing Plusquamperfekt (Past Perfect Simple) or structures with Zustandspassiv/Vorgangspassiv (Passive Voice). On the other hand, you can learn word positions in a phrase, the genre of nouns, cases, prepositions and so on.

You can learn words, expressions, slangs, phrases – a perfect package

Besides words, you can learn so many other things that you normally have to find in a conversation with a native and that are part of their everyday conversations. Did you know that the word “SLANG” is an abbreviation for “Short Language”? I just found that out from a meme. Another thing that you can just learn by having direct contact with the society whose language you’re studying are words that have somewhat become more popular through the use of memes: friendzone, ghost, crush, boomer, Karen, Gen X/Z/Y. Surely you have a lot of material if you want to talk to an American.

They are an effective tool for teaching purposes/school projects

If you are a pupil/student and have to present a project in front of your class, most probably your colleagues won’t pay so much attention because, let’s face it, the stuff you’re trying to talk about is boring. Insert some memes in your project, something related to your topic. On the one hand, you will be more motivated to write and even have fun while doing it and you will probably even remember most of the details, and on the other hand, you can catch your colleagues and even the teacher’s attention.

If you are a school/university teacher, please, just stop reading PowerPoints in front of your class, nobody cares about that. Be more creative when you are teaching, try and think how you could catch your pupils’/students’ attention. You can bring a PowerPoint about the most boring lesson in the world, but if you know how to use humour, you will surely be appreciated.

Meme creating tools

There are so many tools that help you create your own language memes in a language that you study. You just have to be creative and to want to learn. These platforms offer you the pattern, all you have to do is to add text, or, if you are a bit daring, try to create one from scratch. After you are done, show them to someone who understands the language, like a teacher or a friend, or post it somewhere online where people can see it and tell you what needs to be corrected. Surely, you don’t want to do that on your Facebook or Instagram account, right? And this takes me to the next point:

Memes platforms

They allow you to post the language memes you’ve created and receive feedback – do not be discouraged if the feedback is negative, those communities are merciless :))) You can use any editing program that you like, they can be about anything you want, nobody even cares who you are, because you can create an anonymous account. These are the places where you can find people of all nationalities and who speak different languages, but on such platforms, English is the main language. The two titans, if I dare to say so, in this domain are 9GAG and Reddit.

Is an online platform founded in 2008 in Hong Kong, which allows users to post content generated by them, being mainly used for entertainment. It is quite popular, maybe on par with other social websites such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and a vast majority of memes that you see on these sites are 9GAG memes. Most of its users come from Germany, United States, France, United Kingdom and Brasil. The rest of the visitors and content creators are from all over the world.

One fascinating thing about this platform is that it contains several categories, according to what you like and what your interests are. So, if you are more interested in politics, history, funny content or movies/gaming, there are categories for these subjects where people post content related stuff and there are usually a lot of other people chatting in the comments. That is where you get to know and even acquire some virtual friends. Another aspect that you, language lover, might like is the fact that if you go to a popular section and change the country, it will automatically change the language in which the content is displayed. So, if you are interested in the Spanish language and culture, change the country and if you want to learn something, simply go to comments and ask some people for help in that regard. Trust me, they will be willing to teach you a word or two.

Through the use of 9GAG memes, you can also learn some useful things about a country’s culture, its people and even find out some daily news. If you want to know what’s up in Poland these days, go to the Poland section because the citizens usually post about things going on in the country. Same with the other countries.

As for the language, go to the comment section, translate what people say, talk to them in their language and learn.

Another interesting platform

Is an American website founded in 2008, which is destined for discussions, web content rating and news sharing. Like on 9GAG, users can post links, text, and images. It contains different domains, called subreddits which cover topics, such as news, science, movies, video games, music, books, fitness, food, and image or memes sharing. Most of its audience is from America, United Kingdom or Canada. Reddit memes are just as funny as 9GAG memes.

Here, you have another useful feature, you can simply create a post without necessarily using images, like on 9GAG. So if there is language or culture related stuff that you are unsure of or interested in, create a post and people can join the discussions and give you advice. You can also choose from a list of countries enlisted and talk directly to natives, though you will not find all the countries in the world. You will also find different ranked communities where members talk about various topics of common interest. There are numerous foreign language communities, where members help each other and post content related to this topic, or are looking for language pals, someone to share their skills with for some knowledge in return, so go for it!

What you need to keep in mind when you choose to learn with memes

There are also some disadvantages when it comes to such an unconventional way of learning, and it might require additional research on your part, but consider that to be part of your learning process:
  • The first absolute rule that you must know is that you can’t learn everything from memes, they just give you a push – your curiosity and desire to learn more will be your biggest allies here. Search unknown words in a dictionary, make up sentences with them, if you don’t understand a thing, search for explanations online, or ask someone – you see a meme about something you don’t know, spend time and search it.
  • Take into consideration that common people create and post memes, not all of them are teachers, so it is a high possibility that the posts can have grammatical or spelling errors. For instance:

    This is an example of a vocabulary error, the word for ‘surprise’ in German is ‘Überraschung’, which was already quite vehemently clarified in the comment section.

  • If you choose to ask somebody something about language or culture issues, make sure that you get opinions from more than one or two people, and then compare them.
  • If you decide to create and post memes, there is a possibility that those who comment will be rude, so don’t get discouraged.
  • Some memes contain insults, bad words, you might find curse words in the comment section or some tabu words – don’t take them into account yet, or at least check in what context they can or cannot be used.
  • If you want to learn heavy stuff (grammar rules, complicated words) better ask a teacher or to search in a dictionary.
  • They won’t help you perfect all your language skills: you just acquire some vocabulary and simple grammar structure, maybe learn how to write simple or difficult sentences, but that’s it. Unfortunately, they won’t help you with the listening or speaking skills.

If you want to further develop your vocabulary or grammar, I strongly recommend you a diet of VocApp language courses, because you cannot learn everything from memes, right? However, have no worries, you can have fun while learning languages in a fast and simple way. And you can do that in two ways: either you choose one of our already existing language courses, or you can create your own flashcards. Do not hesitate to take a look at this website – VocApp. You can find courses on different languages like: English language courses, German courses, Spanish courses, Polish courses …and many other languages.

If you wish to know other stuff related to matters of language and culture, take a look at some of the VocApp blog articles, written by people from different countries, so there are different perspectives about such matters.

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