Cross-Cultural Communication

A little lingusitic education 


The incident on a Southwest flight in mid-April has bothered me terribly. It has troubled me deeply because it is a result of ignorance and a lack of awareness of the other. How easily we create stereotypes out of fear – a fear which stems from a place of not knowing our neighbours.

When ever I travel to a new country the first thing I do either just prior to arrival or on arrival, is to learn how to say thank you and hello in the local language. I have found that the reaction I receive when I am able to extend this simple gesture is worth more than the thousands of more words I wish I could utter. The expansion of English as the global language for communication has certainly made travel very accessible for so many, but it has also created a sense of what I can only term as arrogance. I have too often encountered travelers who are shouting in English at a bewildered shop keeper or waiter, thinking that by raising the volume of their voice they will somehow make themselves understood.

Language and culture are intricately intertwined. Language carries meanings and references beyond itself because the meanings of a particular language represent the culture of a particular social group. We can therefore not understand a culture without having direct access to its language. Learning a language is not only learning the alphabet, the meaning, the grammar rules and the arrangement of words, but it is also learning the behavior of the society and its cultural customs. Culture is the whole from which the particular language is extracted, and hence by being unmindful of people ability and indeed right to converse in their mother tongues, we build walls around ourselves. These walls in turn create a situation where people have a choice of either to conform to what is seen as ‘culturally’ appropriate or face exclusion. I was deeply troubled after I spoke with a group of young Iraqis and Palestinians in London after the 2005 attacks as they relayed with all certainty that they would never teach their children Arabic as this would single them out. Is this the way we wish to proceed? A world where being linguistically different, just one of many cultural traits which can differentiate an individual, isolates and  ostracises. It is not only Arabic speakers who make this linguistic choice, indeed there are many Asians here in Vancouver who only speak English having never been given the opportunity to learn their parents native tongue.

I return to my original motivation for writing this post and add that I do not expect everyone to learn all languages – this would be impossible and meaningless. I do implore however that we must make a conscious effort to be aware that other languages exist in our society and that their speakers are not all ‘terriorists’! We should remember that many of the ISIL recruits are not native Arabic speakers and we can therefore not make assumptions based on linguistics. Educate yourself and ask the person beside you what language they are speaking – ask them about themselves – introduce yourself – reach out – break down the linguistic barriers…

“Culture, then, began when speech was present, and from then on, the enrichment of either means the further development of the other” A.L.Krober (1923).