Language in the Academy (Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education)

Staff Profile

Language is a product of the thoughts and behaviour of a society.

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Word for word translation is often impossible unless the material is technical in nature. Differences in language between cultures are evident when you compare how some countries have different meanings for certain phrases. In English, when people make requests, they tend to make them indirectly. In any communicative encounter in which there is a cultural difference, there is bound to be some cultural induced language conflict arising from different attitudes towards certain norms.

Cultural misunderstandings can occur when a word, gesture, object or social context, has different meanings in different cultures. How politeness is expressed in particular situations, is one area in which culturally induced conflict can occur. Different languages and cultures have different levels of politeness.

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For example, when communicating with Swedish people, it is important to keep a reasonable personal distance between you and never touch them when you talk to them. Much like Scandinavian people, Germans tend to be reserved and polite. Argentinians like to lean in close when they speak to you, and touch you often during conversation. Pulling away is considered rude and cold. To prevent cultural misunderstandings, it is important to promote cultural understanding.

People often use gestures, glances, changes in tone and voice to alter or emphasise what they want to say. They learn these culturally specific techniques over many years, largely by observing and imitating others. Some gestures can pose the same meaning throughout several cultures worldwide, for example, a smile or a laugh.

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Yet, others may be completely different. For example, spitting on another person is a sign of disrespect in most Westernised countries, yet in certain African countries like Kenya, it can be seen as an affection blessing if done in a certain way by a certain tribe. In many countries such as Japan, younger people do not stare at older people.

Language and Intercultural Communication

If and when they do, they must be the first to lower their eyes; otherwise they will be frowned upon and considered disrespectful. There are also cross-cultural differences in the normal baseline volume of speech; for example, Asians and Europeans speak at lower volumes than the North Americans and Africans. Culture can also have a huge influence on how we communicate and manipulate time. For example, in North America, if you have a business meeting scheduled, the time you should arrive depends largely on the status of the person you are meeting.

People who are of a lower status are expected to arrive on time, if not early.

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