August 2, 2016

Language – More Than Just a String of Words

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Language – More Than Just a String of Words

As your assignees prepare for pending relocations, they’ll have many arrangements to make. Hopefully those preparations will include learning their new countries’ languages. After all, embracing this opportunity will not only support a smoother transition – it will also provide them with a sense of independence that allows them to carry out basic daily tasks in what will become their new home.    

Thriving during relocation through language competency

Of course, learning a new language provides an assignee with far more than the ability to meet basic survival needs.  It also enriches their assignment experiences as it enables them to build a finer thread of communication, and a relationship with their local communities. More than the ability to ask directions, shop, or haggle for a cab, speaking the local language also gives individuals a glimpse into how local people think and view concepts that define their ways of doing, thinking, and speaking. It allows them to share thoughts and develop bonds. In short, language competency allows your assignees to do more than just survive – it allows them to thrive.

At its deepest level, language can be perceived as the foundation for cultural identity. During the last few years, research has shown that the language we use shapes the way we think, which affects the way we communicate. It also directly impacts the way we perceive others and are perceived by others, causing a boomerang effect on any communication exchange. Positive communications elicit positive perceptions which, in turn, elicit positive responses. Put simply, good output = good input = good return output.

Know the language, understand the culture

When two different cultural backgrounds are involved, how do you know how to communicate effectively – to give “good output,”– so that communications are productive and rewarding? And why is cultural context so important?

The best way to answer this question is to provide an example. Let’s assume that you are working in Indonesia. Knowing you’ll need a report within the week, you choose to ask a native Indonesian co-worker in the informal Western way, “Hey, do you think you can give this report to me by next Monday?” While an American co-worker would likely find nothing wrong with this question, your Indonesian colleague might be offended. Here’s why:  An Indonesian does not appreciate direct communication unless polite words are included in your statement or question. 

That same Indonesian co-worker, when asking you to complete the report, would likely say: “Maaf saya menganggu, boleh tanya kalau report ini bisa anda selesaikan Senin depan?” Translated to English, this means, “Sorry for disturbing you. May I please ask you if you can finish this report by next Monday?” Please note that the “You” being used here is a respectful pronoun. Furthermore, opening the request with, “Sorry for disturbing you” conveys consideration of another’s personal boundaries. Without these words, the locals may deem you rude as you are crossing their ‘politeness’ boundary and pressuring them into submitting a report earlier than they should.

All cultures and languages contain words and phrases that put others at ease and invite collaboration. They also contain words that are very demanding and delegating. Assignees knowing the language of their assignment countries and understanding how that language is used within its cultural context helps them to tell the difference between the two. More importantly, it ensures them of a more rewarding and successful experience in their new homes – with their new neighbors. After all, Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

Picture of Yvonne Joewono

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Yvonne Joewono

About Yvonne

Yvonne Joewono is a Cartus Language Consultant and has a degree in Speech Communications and Training Development. She is trilingual in Bahasa Indonesian, English, and Mandarin, and is currently learning Hindi during her free time.

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Barbara Essington
Yvonne shows not only the importance of language but how it is used is equally important. She has a firm grasp on sensitivity and respectfulness within that culture that puts the individual at ease and in turn, receives a positive response.
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