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Overcoming language barriers in communication

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As business becomes more global, we have more opportunities to speak to an ever-wider range of nationalities and people. Increasingly, the world is using English, and this APPEARS to give us, as native speakers, great advantages. However, communication between people of different cultural backgrounds involves much more than them overcoming the language barrier by speaking our language!

To effectively communicate across cultures, the first thing is to identify how our use of English can cause intercultural misunderstandings by creating a language barrier in communication...

Issues of Language. Language differences are hugely significant. Language isn't just how people speak - it is who they are. Knowing the language gives you an insight into the people. When you learn the language of another people, you notice differences in structure, vocabulary and shades of meaning, and that helps you to understand their outlook. I can't teach you another language but I can help you transform your English into an international language, by helping you understand the deeper meanings of ‘their' English.

The English language, for example, has sayings that reflect an efficient, activist driven society: "Actions speak louder than words" and "Time is money". The language itself is structured efficiently too: subject - verb - object. Japanese leaves the verb till the end to modify or do away with, depending on the reaction of the listener; the quest being for harmony. Thailand has 12 words for "you", denoting the importance of seniority. An East African tribe has numerous words for green, reflecting the importance to them of Nature's many shades. Nepal has different words for "uncle", according to whether he is the brother of your mother or father, and whether he is older or younger than your parent. French and Hindi both have "familiar" terms for you/thou, which are used either for intimates such as your family or when speaking down to someone. In French it's "tu/toi", in Hindi it's "toom". In both cases, your tone of voice makes the distinction. Arabs will tend to use the passive voice, e.g. "It was observed ..." instead of "I observed ..." because they are more fatalistic than active in approach to life.

In each case, the national characteristics are revealed in the structure of their language. Those attitudes are carried over into the way they use English, even if they do not translate directly from their language into English. The significance, however, isn't just the linguistic differences, but rather the attitudes that lie behind them, and the cultural values that give rise to those attitudes.

The cultural differences in linguistics described above are only a few of the challenges in international communications. In order to overcome them, you need to first see them clearly and objectively; this skill can be learned. Secondly, you must understand how you are being perceived by counterparts from other cultures; this is a challenge of self-awareness. Finally, you need to use effective cross-cultural communications, which means developing skills such as communicating in English with non-native English speakers, using language, gestures and body language understood across cultures.

D. Swallow, 2009

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