Why is cross-cultural awareness important in language training and learning? Take the lingua franca of the international business world, for instance. Today, countries and organisations across the globe do business in a common language, English. Many European and Asian countries teach English as the second language to their children. After the dissolution of the former communist USSR, English became the favoured language of many former soviet republics aiming to become a part of the global society. Georgia, for instance, made a key linguistic switch: English mandatory for all students whereas Russian was optional.
With all this investment in English language teaching, are learners across the globe speaking the same language? And are they speaking it the same way? You may learn the technical parts such as grammar and punctuation, but what about the nuances, about what words connote and not simply denote? Moreover, does your cultural identity determine the style and register in your usage of the world’s lingua franca?
It most certainly does. And therefore, for those in an international setting, an appreciation of what lies beneath the more obvious differences in cultures is vital in teaching and learning a language. In understanding culture, the obvious differences in customs, clothes, food, etc. are easier to see. However, it is the hidden differences like the mind-set, values, beliefs, attitudes, sensibilities, prejudices and preferences that also determine how we communicate, whichever be the language of our choice.
Let’s look at three examples to understand the differences in the use of English between Asian speakers of English such as the Japanese or Indians and those native English speakers:
1. Nouniness and Verbiness
Indians and Japanese tend to use more nouns which make the language heavy and cumbersome; native users of the language, on the other hand, use more verbs which make the language more direct and dynamic.
E.g. “The candidate submitted an application for the job.” vs. “The candidate applied for the job.”
“The police conducted an investigation into the murder.” vs. “The police investigated the murder.”
The nominalisation in the former examples, which makes the language wordy, is related to an attitude, even among many Indians who have acquired English through academic studies that using big words and complex sentences make language impressive. This results in verbosity.
The point a trainer needs to drive home is “Speak or write to express, not to impress.”
2. Use of Passive Voice
Native-users of English prefer the active voice whereas Asian users tend to use the passive voice more. This directly relates to how they communicate in their own language.
E.g. Native Japanese speakers who want to treat their colleagues to lunch will politely say: “Watasi ni harawasete kudasai”, which corresponds to “Allow the bill to be paid by me.” The English “Let me pay” or “I’ll pay” would sound a bit rude and abrupt. Japanese or Indians are more reserved and formal, and the impersonal or distanced nature of passive voice matches their sensibility better. The western attitude prefers brisker “who did what” style of the active voice.
The point for the trainer here is to impress upon the English learners to make active voice the voice of their choice in every day communication or in business English, barring exceptions in negotiating or persuading where tone and politeness need to be kept in mind.
3. Direct and Indirect Expressions
Japanese and Indians find it rather more difficult to say “no” directly. It can sound rude or “in your face”. They would rather imply a negative than say it out loud. This can cause misunderstanding as westerners sometimes might assume a deal is done and dusted, whereas there was never a “yes” implied.
E.g. “Kangaete mimashoo” or “Let me think about it” can often mean an “I’m sorry, no”; a “Ah, soo desu ne” or “Ah, that is so”, depending on the intonation could mean, that is not so; or even a “Wakarimasita” or “I understand” could simply indicate understanding and not necessarily agreement. An Indian may say “Haan ji” or “Theek hai”, which when literally translated means “yes”, rather than the more direct “No” or “I can’t” which makes them uncomfortable or embarrassed. It could sometimes even be simple face-saving. Westerner are often frustrated at this “miscommunication” and at times even question the honesty of the communicator.
Training becomes essential in creating cultural awareness in sensibilities that include the concept of “face”, and that meaning sometimes lies between the lines, in the intonation and body language. Asians, on the other hand, need to understand the more direct “cards on the table” style of, for instance, their American counterpart where no impoliteness is intended. Because our beliefs and values are reflected in our communication, we need to share more than just words when we switch languages; we need to share and empathise with the other’s sensibility, attitude and thinking.
There are two lessons here for organisations and trainers:
i) Train employees in cross cultural awareness so the ‘hidden’ cultural differences like attitudes and values are understood and appreciated
ii) Note that sensibilities need to shift according to the language spoken, i.e. when using English, be more direct and precise, use the KISS principle of keeping your language short and simple, but without ever being rude or unprofessional; when using other languages, for example Asian ones, match your style to suit the more formal and indirect mindset of your audience or readership.
Our ability to communicate, negotiate and influence will be more effective and fulfilling if we truly learn to speak the same language, both verbal and non-verbal.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2013