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Different Languages-Different Worlds

Language, as German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in an essay from 1946, is the ‘house of meaning’. In its home, he said “human beings dwell”. For those of us committed to cross-cultural understandings, an immediate follow-up question arises: Is there one house of meaning or are there many? There are some 6,500 different spoken languages around the world, even though about one-half are on the verge of extinction because of the dwindling number of speakers (estimate by the language learning platform Buusu). Do we live in the same house of meaning or are there different ‘language homes’?

The cross-cultural experience supports, in my mind, the latter, and the challenge is to connect our various ‘homes’ in ways that are respectful and appreciative. Bridging language ‘worlds’ plays a key role here, and we need to be mindful of the limitations of English as the so-called ‘lingua franca’ in cross-cultural encounters, whether as an expat on overseas assignment, as an international student earning degrees in a different country, as an emigrant having left our country of origin, or having moved abroad for family reasons. As Indian-born author Jhumpa Lahiri puts it in her book ‘In Other Words’ from 2016, “A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility”. In linguistic circles, this quote is an example of a theory developed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the early decades of the last century. Accordingly, language is not a neutral means of expressing ourselves; rather, language shapes, structures, and controls how we think and perceive ourselves and the world around us. Different languages do so in different ways and are incommensurable: a perfect translation from one to another is not possible. While linguists, notably Noam Chomsky, have more recently challenged this theory, positing the existence of a universal grammar, the Whorfian hypothesis is helpful in highlighting a central challenge as well as an opportunity in promoting cross-cultural understanding.

To illustrate this, let me summarize a recent conference session at the Academy of Human Resource Development annual meeting in Atlanta in late February of this year. A group of about 30 university professors and students met to share and reflect on our experience of living, working, and studying in the US and using US English as a second language in our professional lives. Most of us were born in another country, had moved to the US as young adults many years ago, and had made the US our permanent home. At issue was not language proficiency, most of the group had earned or were well on their way to receiving advanced degrees from US universities, many held faculty positions at major research universities, and some were highly placed corporate managers and executives. The focus was on the experience of living in a language world other than the one we were born into, were brought up in, and in which we had completed secondary and even university-level education before moving to the US.

As facilitator of the session, I shared my own experience by saying that whenever I return to my native Germany for work or to visit family, I felt that I ‘became another one’, leaving my US identity behind and slipping, after a few disorienting days, into my native language. ‘Going native’ in my country and language of origin feels, in so many ways, like coming home. Speaking my language of origin is like putting on a well-worn set of slippers—comfortable and comforting. I blend in and am ‘one of them’, no questions asked. I express myself in a more nuanced and fluid manner and enjoy referring to the history and traditions of my hometown well understood by those around me. Back in the States, I regularly find myself translating my thoughts, searching, on occasion, for expressions and words, inserting ‘thought breaks’ in the middle of a sentence, and self-consciously noticing the well-meaning but somewhat intrusive verbal and non-verbal messages of ‘so where are you from?’.

Curious about whether my experience was an aberration, I was heartened by the strength of related and similar observations offered in our conference session. I also came away with a new understanding of the difficulties and challenges in cross-cultural understanding that lay hidden just under the surface of the welcoming attitude towards international students and faculty in higher education. Space does not permit detail on the many heartfelt contributions in our session, but two overarching themes were apparent.

The first one is the deep sense of rootedness and connection to the language of birth, even when time in the US long exceeds that in the home country. During introductions, we asked the simple question “tell us where you are from?”, and virtually all of our seminar participants named their birth country, and this despite substantial professional success, good careers or career prospects, and close family ties in their adopted country. Much of this sense of belonging is mediated through language. Our participants talked about missing the rich language of their home country, and the sense of remaining outsiders on account of their accents. Making small talk, bantering, colloquialisms and slang did not come easy in their adopted language. Many said that their closest friendships were with others from the home country, conversing in their native language and forming deeper relationships and more meaningful exchanges than with US friends and colleagues. “Some things”, one participant said succinctly, “can only be said in my language”.

A second theme of our session was around a sense of feeling isolated, negated in their ‘otherness’ and pigeon-holed as ‘not from here’ in the context of work and school. This was for many a painful issue and there was gratitude for the opportunity to give voice to the topic and receiving confirmation of their own experience. The sense was one of not being validated as having a different worldview and understanding, and thus forced into a choice between joining a homogenized way of speaking and thinking or remaining isolated and silent. The dominance of a mainstream way of thinking and speaking using US English in faculty meetings, for example, was seen as crowding out, deliberately or otherwise, alternative ways of approaching a topic based on an alternative way of seeing things. As one participant put it succinctly: “they assume that since I speak American, I think like an American”.

Interestingly, our session participants offered very similar assessments whether their country of origin ranked high or low in cultural distance to the US. The tasks of bridging Korean and US English, for example, did not seem any larger in their essential features than UK and even Canadian English. And even within-country linguistic diversity showed similar patterns, and this by region of the country and certainly by racial and ethnic background.

What, then, do the insights of our session mean for the project of furthering cross-cultural understanding? At a very basic level, I think, we need to be mindful of the deep identification with the language of origin in cross-cultural encounters; the use of English, and particular US English, enables connections and exchange, but also crowds out and makes invisible nuances of expression and ways of thinking of another language world. Deepening our understanding of ‘the other’ requires sensitivity to the role of language, the invitation to share how one might speak about a given topic in the other’s language, and to raise the presence of different ways of thinking and speaking in different languages. This task presents itself in particular in US English but is equally present wherever speakers from dominant language community interact with second-language speakers. I invite the members of our PCCU community to respond and look forward to hearing from many of you.

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