Ivy League Education at Home Part 2: Foreign Cultures & Languages

Written by on May 13, 2009 in Ivy League Education at Home - 5 Comments

flag-puzzleThe first lesson in the Ivy League Education at Home series seeks to help you answer two questions:

– Who lives on the Earth?
– How do they live?

Foreign cultures & languages is the study of people. Unlike history (which is a lesson for another week), the study of cultures and languages focuses on the present. A truly educated person is a master of foreign cultures and languages. His studies help him understand the people he interacts with, intelligently interpret news stories about world affairs, and make smart decisions about the kind of foreign policy he wants to support. Learning about the people of the world is also just plain fun. Get ready to meet new friends, see amazing places, and have some life changing experiences.

In this post I’m going to discuss four ways anyone can develop an Ivy League understanding of foreign cultures & languages: recognizing geography, studying other societies, learning a second language, and traveling abroad.

Let’s get started.

Assignment 1: Develop a General Understanding of Geography

If you were handed an unlabeled world map, could you fill in the names of each country? If not, spend some time familiarizing yourself with world geography. Political geography (i.e. the boundaries of each nation rather than the physical characteristics of the Earth) is extremely important when it comes to world politics, trade, and travel.

Consider printing off a detailed world map and posting it somewhere prominent. Whenever you hear about a country on the news, take note of its location and surrounding regions. Many people have a tradition of marking their map each time they visit a new place.

Assignment 2: Learn About Other Countries & Cultures

Once you have a general understanding of geography, research the essentials of other countries and cultures. With 195 current countries, there can be a lot of information to take in. Make the load more manageable by starting with the 50 most populous countries. Move on only when you’re comfortable discussing these.

Three ways to learn about other countries and cultures are to read, collect, and talk.

Read. The internet is packed with useful and free information about every country that exists. Check out Wikipedia’s list of countries for links to details on each. The online edition of the CIA’s World Factbook is packed with maps, diagrams, and descriptions, as is the country collection at InfoPlease. EveryCulture gives readers a thorough look at how people live and what they believe. You’ll also want to check your local library for more in-depth resources.

Make a list of essential questions you want to know about each country’s culture. Your list may include queries such as:

  • Where is this country on a map?
  • What language is spoken here?
  • What type of government do they have?
  • What is the dominant religion?
  • How does their economy operate?
  • What are the country’s major exports?
  • Have they experienced any recent wars or conflicts?
  • What is their relationship with the United States?

Collect. If an in-depth study of other countries is relatively new to you, consider making a scrapbook of the 50 most populous nations. As you study, give each nation its own page while answering the questions above. Then, when you read about a country in the news, file that story behind the country’s page in your book. As the weeks progress, you’ll begin to recognize patterns and make connections. You can create a digital scrapbook by using programs like Microsoft’s OneNote and pasting clippings from the web. It may seem a bit juvenile, but this project can help you develop a thorough understanding of the world and its politics. In a short amount of time, you’ll understand more about our world than most people develop in a lifetime.

Talk. To gain a true understanding of foreign cultures, it is essential to talk with people who’ve experienced other countries first hand. Make an effort to meet people from other places and ask about what they know. Don’t be shy – most people are happy to discuss their home countries.

Assignment 3: Speak a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language can be difficult, but it’s an essential part of giving yourself a liberal arts education. Becoming fluent in a second language will help you communicate with people abroad, improve your job prospects, enhance your vocabulary, and open up an entire new world of literature.

Fortunately, free language learning resources are plentiful. There are online classes, podcasts, and videos for the most widely-spoken languages. Plus, language learning communities such as LiveMocha and iTalki can set you up with a study partner. Using VOIP (a program that allows you to make phone calls over the internet), you can help someone learn English while he helps you master his native language. Win-win.

In the chart below, I direct you to some of the best resources for five popular languages. For the purposes of this post I couldn’t include all of the existing languages or websites, so please take a look at the foreign languages section on this site and do some exploring on your own.

[table id=1 /]

Assignment 4: Travel Abroad

While it doesn’t necessarily fall under the “free” category, traveling is the absolute best way to learn about other cultures. A trip can help you discover the truth about other countries first-hand. It is absolutely worth the time and effort.

Want to travel on the cheap? You’d be surprised about how little it can cost. One family of four is able to take an extensive, multi-year, round-the-world trip at only $25,000/yr. If you can telecommute, you may be able to leave without taking any vacation time. See: How Much Does a 52-Week Worldwide Learning Adventure Cost?

You may also want to consider teaching English overseas. Legitimate employers will pay for your travel expenses, housing, food, and a reasonable stipend. You can experience a new culture while getting paid.

In Conclusion

There’s a lot to know and a lot to do. Don’t get overwhelmed. Remember: the Ivy League Education at Home lessons are an overview of what it takes to give yourself a complete liberal arts education. There’s no need to rush.

Learning about foreign cultures, practicing language skills, and traveling are worthwhile pursuits. In the end, you’ll develop a deep understanding of the planet you live in, be able to make friends with people from other countries, and become capable of intelligently analyzing the conflicts and events that occur in our world everyday.

Know of a useful foreign culture resource I missed? Have a learning tip to share on this subject? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section. The more resources and ideas we have, the better.

Next Week: Historical Study

5 Comments on "Ivy League Education at Home Part 2: Foreign Cultures & Languages"

  1. Anon June 1, 2009 at 2:52 pm · Reply

    Having travelled to and lived in some different countries, I can honestly say that the only
    online materials that were really helpful for getting along were the ones at


    They teach what you need to know in the order you need to learn it and in the
    way it is spoken. The emphasis is on automatic reproduction and drilling of patterns
    so that when you confront everyday situations, you can cope without having to
    try to remember stem endings and such for each word you say or write.

    Even if I was going to study a language in more depth eventually, I would start with
    these. Enormously helpful.

  2. Anon June 1, 2009 at 3:00 pm · Reply

    Assignment 4 is the most important. It is important to prepare heavily by learning
    the language first, because you don’t learn so much by visiting English speaking
    tourist venues. One can do this travel a little bit at a time (a week here and there).
    It is important to find some structure for your trip that puts you into direct contact
    with people you would want to meet, otherwise you might end up
    walking around looking at buildings mostly.

    Also, I wouldn’t believe a lot of what is written in English about other countries,
    especially regarding stereotypes of what people in that culture are like. There is
    a lot of misinformation out there. On the other hand, you will want to know and
    discuss with native speakers issues of politeness in their society. A good way to do
    this is through language exchanges over the internet at language exchange sites.

  3. Anon June 1, 2009 at 3:08 pm · Reply

    Also, I would like to point out that year/semester abroad is not required at Ivy League/top universities. The language requirement is really quite minimal in terms of understanding, speaking and reading a foreign language. Most of the people who do go abroad do so if it would help them in their major (e.g. French majors travel to France etc.)

  4. Anon June 1, 2009 at 3:11 pm · Reply

    Also, I think you should link to geography and cultural anthropology resources on this topic 🙂 These are often the most reliable and illuminating writing (as opposed to news clipping by clueless reporters) on this topic.

  5. Annie W. November 1, 2010 at 5:18 pm · Reply

    Just a little bit of a heads up –

    If your sense of geography is not too strong yet and you’re the type who remembers more through gameplay, please go to http://www.freepoverty.com/ and try their free game. Not only are you expanding your horizons, but you are donating water to those in need.

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