I don’t speak the language, but that culture don’t need explaining

By Simon Brown / Columnist

One wouldn’t expect to find much contemporary wisdom in any Jason Derulo song. But anyone who has endured hearing “Talk Dirty” can find in it a perspective toward global travel shared by too many study abroad programs. 

The somehow-popular song details Derulo’s international sexual exploits and ensures the erstwhile listener that “though [he doesn’t] speak the language,” nevertheless, “that booty don’t need explaining.” Many study abroad programs and the students they attract seem to share the same general attitude about their own journeys: One can experience and learn about a country without deeply studying its culture, history or language. 

Admittedly, that reconstruction isn’t quite so catchy as Derulo’s. 

According to the International Institute of Education, study abroad administration, advertising and participation has significantly increased in the past decade. This development is almost entirely admirable, and without a doubt, students studying abroad can learn an incredible amount about a foreign place in a way they could not from lectures or books. Talking to native speakers, observing art and architecture and tasting cuisine are all experiences that benefit from traveling to different places. Without this experience, one is hard pressed to say he or she understands a culture. 

However, those studying abroad should consider how their presence within the culture can obscure the way they experience it, and how their program may present an inherently distorted view of their host country.   

Students can start by studying the conditions that allow them to study abroad in the first place. One may notice, for instance, that universities in Spain, Greece, Ireland and, increasingly, the United Kingdom provide a considerable number of study abroad opportunities. It’s no coincidence that institutions of higher education in these countries suffered considerably from the austerity regimen prescribed after the financial collapse a few years ago. Universities, hoping to compensate for limited government support, readily welcome international students and their drastically higher tuition payments. 

This doesn’t deem the education received through these programs necessarily worse. Nor does it mean that students participating in such programs contribute to the plummeting decrease in locals’ access to higher education. On the contrary, their tuition bills counter the problem. Nevertheless, it underlines the obligation of American students to ponder how their study at such universities privileges them over most native students and how their experiences differ from those of their contemporaries.

American college students in Greece, Italy and Spain certainly learn and experience many things. Luckily, those experiences don’t include the fate of most of their local peers —  staggering unemployment after graduation.

In addition to following current events, students studying abroad would do well to read the history of the culture in which they’ll soon be immersed. Without some historical contextualization, not only is it impossible to fully appreciate the surrounding culture, but also one can actually misrepresent it. This seems to be a fact too often missed in the fervor of ‘experiential learning,’ a buzz-phrase universities usually advertise in their study abroad brochures. But ‘inexperiential learning,’ known until recently as ‘learning,’ is needed to provide a necessary balance.

For instance, just a few hours before writing this column, I was wandering an impressive museum in a university town in Great Britain. I was struck by a particularly beautiful collection of eleventh-century Indian religious statues. The collection proved more extensive than any I’d seen in the U.S. For a moment, the expanse and popularity of the museum’s holdings confirmed what I had presumed: Britons are quite simply more worldly than we boorish Americans. 

Then I remembered why I had the privilege to look at such striking artwork, half a world away from its origin, in the first place — Britain’s history of imperial dominion over India. That certainly didn’t detract from the aesthetic experience, but it did contribute a discomforting sidenote. At that moment, I better understood how, for centuries, the British tolerated the brutal theft of Indian culture from its people. When imperialism can be repackaged by imperialists as worldliness behind the glass barriers of a museum, it becomes far easier to accept.

Without a little background in British history, that fairly rich response to a work of cultural production would have boiled down simply to “we Americans are pretty dumb, huh?”

By remembering the global context of our own travels abroad, we can ensure that we will not recreate the fatal error of the imperial museum: an appreciation for the aesthetics of a place, without realizing the complex historical and political developments which allow us to appreciate it in the first place. 

In short, Derulo’s internationalism should not be ours. The world does need explaining — and quite a bit. 

Write to Simon at [email protected]