Language learning, cultural awareness, and toilets

I recently posted on the suggestion that the Romans sometimes used bits of pottery to clean themselves after they’ve been to the loo.

Other cultures are known to use stones as an alteranive to more flexible solutions, so the use of pottery fragments in long drop dry latrines shouldn’t come as a surprise as a solution in a culture that hadn’t yet invented toilet paper or had universal flushing toilets and the infrastructure to deal with toilet paper.   The cynical might say that the user experience of Victorian hard toilet paper (think Izal) was probably not that dissimilar to using pessoi.

One could imagine a cultural rule that went something like ‘if there’s a spongestick available use that, otherwise it’s pessoi‘, just as in Greece and Turkey today if there’s a little bin in the loo, it’s for used paper – paper goes in the poo-paper bin rather than down the loo. There are other examples such as the etiquette around bucket flush toilets in south east Asia.

Now this comes back to what I’ve previously said about how learning a language is actually about learning a culture. In the case of the Romans they’re all dead so we have to reconstruct the culture using a mix of archaeological and literary sources, but the same problems apply to learning a culture, and it’s the everyday ones that trip you up – like German campsite toilets with a toilet paper dispenser outside the stall rather than inside – things that of course you know about but don’t because you are not from here.

I’m using toilets as an example as most people from most cultures are reticent about talking about or asking questions about what what you do and how you do it in there.

For example I once helped train some aid workers from Somaliland on how to look after their computers which were used to track food distribution to refugees. These were educated, funny, literate people, but they had a problem, they kept slipping off the toilet – why? – because they were used to squat toilets and couldn’t (a) get the idea of sitting on a western wc, and (b) the men had never developed accuracy as when they normally peed it was from a squatting position.

In other words learning languages are about learning a culture, and should include questions like ‘what do you have for breakfast?’ – important as I once inadvertantly put flaked dried fish on muesli in Borneo thinking it was some form of crushed seeds to add body to the muesli, ‘how do you use the loo’, ‘how to you buy x‘, etc, etc

Closing the circle, this is one reason why studying the European classical period has value – it’s well researched, has a vast knowledge, but because it is subject to ongoing research we periodically come up with left field discoveries like pessoi – and that helps us think about gaps in our knowledge about other cultures …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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