But as much as this has been an exploration of the history of language in the United States, it has also turned out to be an examination of prejudice and privilege…. [American history] is genocide and slavery and discrimination
— Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue (p. 252).
The history of language follows the ebbs and flows of one form of communication to another. It seems that human beings, born in the right circumstances, can switch from one language to another without much effort. One group spoke Hebrew, then Babylonian, then Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Generation after generation, language blends into language.
Languages don’t just ebb and flow like tides of the ocean. They fight, kill, dominate, and oppress, like warring chimpanzees. Hebrew speakers sent the Canaanites to the hills, before being conquered by Babylonians, and then the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Each power came and imposed a language of privilege onto the next group. No language disappeared without a fight. Fight for the marginalized
During my short two days at the Polyglot Conference in NYC (in the midst of my public speaking tour), I spent much of the time chatting with people. Since my talk concerned how to use this talent/hobby/obsession of ours for bettering our community, my fellow polyglots offered their own ideas on this topic. We can use languages to help international aid and speakers of rare—or just less well-known—languages, as well as ourselves.
Here are ten people, in alphabetical order, who offered me some ideas and questions that enriched my thinking.
People tend to match their language and mannerisms with the group they want to fit in with. Small children like to imitate their parents, for example. We can change alignment, too. Once small kids become teenagers, they try to do everything in a way different from their parents. Their language goes from imitating their parents to matching their peers. Grown people also change behavior in different social settings. Wives roll their eyes when they see their husbands horsing around with their high school friends. “At least they (mostly) don’t act like this at home!” they think to themselves. (Fortunately, we know what’s acceptable there.) Through speech and mannerisms, humans fit themselves in with the most significant group at a given time and place.
Societies shift their alignment, too. While they may see themselves akin to one group at one time, a change in worldview can bring them into sync with another group. Russian society, aligned with the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the extent that some aristocrats spoke French but not Russian. They rejected the West in the October Revolution in the early 20th century. In the late 20th century, it aspired to similar ideals as the West, expressed by the new advertising slogan, “Новое поколение выбирает Пепси!” “A new generation chooses Pepsi!” In the early 21st century, it moved away from the West again in struggles over the status of independent journalism and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Each move reveals a shift towards or against an ideology associated with the West.
Language reveals such shifts, as well, and look different depending on how the society imagines itself. The penetration of technology into people’s lives changes how they speak. Whatever native language an Indian speaks, the words “IT,” “End User,” or “Tech Support,” all come out in English. At the same time, L’Académie française, the French Academy, replaces foreign neologisms in order to preserve the French language and culture. For example, “bookmark” would be “le marque-page”. The Academy seeks to make the French language the most basic reference in communication, as opposed to another standard, such as English.
Last post, I discussed how alphabets can be used to divide. In this post, I will show how writing systems unite. A seemingly superficial change in a language, the script or alphabet, reveals how a society wants to align itself. I’ve collected a few examples that show changes in writing systems, which move in a new cultural direction, unify multiple cultures, and assimilate to an occupying force. While a language may or may not change, a society can use the form of writing to express affinity with another culture or to unite disparate groups with a single culture.
Moving towards the West
For most of its history Turkish was written with the Arabic alphabet. In the early 20th century, however, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk initiated a vast reform to modernize and, many ways, westernize. Educational reform comprised a large part of the reform, which included moving communication from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. The reasons were complex. The facts here come from the article, “Atatürk’s Reforms.”
One reason was that the Arabic script was not well-equiped to depict the complex vowels of Turkish as well as the Latin script. In addition, Atatürk wanted to purify the Turkish language of foreign words, especially from Arabic and Persian. The Arabic script was better equipped to depict Arabic words. Since Atatürk wanted to make the language more Turkish and less Arabic, the change of script suited both desires.
Technology also influenced Atatürk’s decision. The 19th century technologies of the telegraph and moveable-type printing press demonstrated the weakness of using the Arabic alphabet. They were designed to work with the Latin alphabet; you could not communicate a message in the Arabic script with a telegraph, for example. For Turkish ideas to be expressed broadly and quickly, the alphabet had to match that of current communication technologies.
This part of the educational reform displayed a symbolic unification with the West among the other reforms. By sharing this aspect of literacy, Turkey identified and aligned with the West over the mother of Turkish literacy, the Arab East.
Writing unites peoples
Chinese benefits from an international alphabet. The writing system is used across the country as the standard, even among the scores of languages and dialects spoken in its territory. The written language maps most closely, however, to the standard Mandarin dialect, though it does not match it precisely.
The written Chinese language, nevertheless, achieved unity among a diversity of peoples and languages in its vast territory. International communication, that is, among the many peoples of China, can take place because everyone is taught the same written language. Remnants of earlier Chinese imperial power can be seen in Japanese and Korean writing, which began with Chinese writing. They moved away from Chinese writing to different extents, as they formed their own national identity, but the common Chinese roots of writing show the early international influence of this writing system. Chinese writing offers a way of communicating easily among speakers of many languages, centered on the Mandarin-based power structure.
Assimilating and flourishing
Most people are familiar with the ancient Egyptian language as written in hieroglyphics on, for example, the great pyramids. The language and its writing went through more than one stage of evolution. As the Rosetta Stone illustrates, formal hieroglyphic writing was superceded by a handwritten, cursive style. After many centuries of development, the later form of the language is called “Coptic.” (Three different dialects exist, but that is not relevant for this post.) The language started being written with Greek letters, starting in the 1st century BCE after the Greeks took control of the country in the 4th-3rd centuries BCE. Information comes from the article, “Coptic Language.”
Beyond the writing system, Egypt was becoming heavily influenced by Greek culture. Greek Alexandrian literature was some of the most important writing in pre-Christian times, and held on to this influence after the early adoption of Christianity in that city. The Coptic language was also an important literary language for many centuries, and it was promoted by students of Greek rhetoric. As Christianity blossomed in Greek-dominated lands, Coptic flourished. Many hagiographa were written in Coptic, as were many of the famous gnostic writings of the Nag Hammadi library.
As Greek culture came to dominate Coptic culture, Greek writing became more important. The Coptic language itself remained strong, but the strong influence of Greece is apparent in the alphabet, the vehicle of Egyptian literature.
Turkey plugged into the benefits of the progressive West and turned away from the East by shifting to the Latin alphabet. Chinese united different nations under one written form of language. Coptic entered into a new cultural millieu by adopting the alphabet of their Greek conquerers. An alphabet symbolizes unity, even if the languages remain mutually incomprehensible.
Who do you want to read your writing? How do you make sure they read what you have to say? How do you make sure your people can read what they have to say? After answering these questions, cultures tend to align themselves with a particular form of writing, even if the language stays the same. Even though an alphabet expresses no linguistic meaning on its own, it manifests cultural solidarity, like food or clothing does.
Not just what we express, but how we express it says something about who we are and who we aspire to be. As intelligent human beings, we must be aware of our speech and behavior and who it aligns us with. By choosing carefully our form of expression, we can make ourselves closer to who we want to be.
Humans excel at discussing how their family, tribe, state, or ethnicity differs from another. Even when everything seems so similar to the outsider, the insider can fixate on one aspect of culture. A dance move, a hand gesture, the use of a spice, a pattern of embroidery–anything can show how you and I are “essentially” different.
Personally, I love these differences, but I can see the downside. When I study languages, I love the little differences. I seek out how Ukrainians pronounce Russian, how different Arabic dialects say the word “now,” how Serbs and Croats pronounce “girl” differently. Variety is the spice of life, right? When discussing these differences with native speakers, sometimes the discussion unfortunately moves to value-based ideas like language “purity” or “progressive” thinking or some other sort of ideology. I dislike ideology because it cements differences by devaluing the Other. Variety and distinctions display the uniqueness of human beings and cultures. The cultural differences I have encountered have shown me that I always have more to learn; I don’t have all the answers.
Writing systems represent a “paralinguistic” phenomenon that cultures can use to distinguish themselves. Even when people speak each other’s language, or even speak the same language, writing divides. Division may be bad, in that it can foment chauvinism, or may be good, in that it can preserve unique cultural traits. In any case, writing distinguishes cultural groups within an otherwise unified linguistic milieu.
Recently I read Michael Erard’s, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. (Anyone who loves languages must read this salute to hyperpolyglots.) In one place, he discusses the polyglot world of India. My experience supports his description, that Indians speak multiple languages. At the same time, each language does not represent an “airtight” container; every Indian seems to be speaking multiple languages simultaneously by dropping in words from whatever language comes to mind. Sid, a Telugu whom I interviewed a while ago, said he chooses the word from the language that suits most what he’s trying to say. Erard discussed the Tamil grammarian, E. Annamalai, who wrote of an Indian “monogrammar,” that is, “While they sound different and use different vocabularies, he said, the grammars are nearly the same” (Erard, 208).
Significantly, among such similar languages, distinct writing systems developed for many Indian languages. India is divided into two major language families, the Indo-Aryan languages in the North, and the Dravidian languages in the South. The four most widely spoken Dravidian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, each possesses its own writing system. Among my South Indian acquaintances, a working knowledge of at least 2-3 of them is common–but they can’t read them.
The contrast struck me between the common ability to speak many Dravidian languages and inability to read them, prompting me to ask the question of “why?” Human beings use markers to distinguish among groups, whether by food (eg, kosher), clothing (eg, hijab), or language. Since the first two do not distinguish among these South Indian groups significantly, and many people move fluidly among the languages, the societal organism grabbed on to writing as a way to distinguish. As a result, you can place a piece of writing in front of an Indian polyglot to see where in the social structure he or she belongs.
While we think of Chinese writing as difficult, we have to understand that there are two significant Chinese writing systems. Native speakers/writers of each one find the other difficult. Even if speakers in Mainland China and Taiwan speak the same dialect, they may write using systems that are not mutually intelligible. In effect, Chinese writing is bilingual, even if the people are speaking the same dialect.
In this aspect, the writing systems cemented in place the divisions in the country from the ’50s and ’60s. While the Mainland was moving in one direction under Mao, the other areas that were resistant to Mao’s ideas moved in another.
These divisions are still effective today, though I don’t know if anyone has measured the extent. At my company, our IT Service Desk needs distinct teams to be able to handle requests for help in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. We know that a huge amount of traffic on the internet is “in Chinese.” But this is usually measured as “speakers of Chinese.” Since there isn’t a single written Chinese, then one would have to add the usage in Traditional, Simplified, and Pinyin Chinese writing.
One people divided by religion and writing
Slavs moved into the Balkans in Southeast Europe in around the 5th-6th century. Most believe that they moved from the North, maybe from the area of modern-day Ukraine. (From Wikipediahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Slavs.) They were independent tribes, without central leadership.
During successive centuries, part of them came under the influence of the Eastern Christians (Orthodox), centered in Constantinople, and some under the Western Christians (Catholic), centered in Rome. In time, the former came to be known as “Serbs” and the latter, “Croats.” These groups started to develop national identities around their respective religions. Certain geographical areas contained a majority of one group, which became another important part of their cultural identity.
The religious leadership worked to evangelize and educate the Southern Slavs, each in their own writing system. To this day, Serbs read and write principally in Cyrillic writing, and Croats almost exclusively in the Latin alphabet. Linguists recognize a single spoken language, Serbo-Croatian, with local variations that are more tied to place than to religion, though this has changed a lot since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The religious difference is thus bound up in the language through the writing system.
Writing divides where language does not
In India, China, and the former Yugoslavia we see that mutually unintelligible writing systems are used when languages are fully comprehensible. What could motivate this layer of confusion, when mutual understanding is already present?
Human beings show a tendency to identify with a group whose markers function in opposition to others. Thus a Tamil who speaks Tamil and Kannada can say to the Kannada person, “I am not Kannada because I cannot read that writing.” A Taiwanese Mandarin speaker can say to the Mainlander, “We may speak the same language, but I cannot read your writing. If you have something important to say, I’m sure you’ll tell me.” The Croat can say to the Serb, “Your writing looks so Russian! You Serbs have a much more eastern mentality than we do.” The writing systems provide data to demonstrate that our groups, which share so much in common, are different deep down.
Individuals may not pronounce these precise phrases, but they demonstrate how easy it is to move from alphabet or ideogram to identity and to ideology. We must be careful of this ease of motion.
Most importantly for me, I don’t believe in erasing differences among people, though they must be viewed with caution. I believe in these distinctions; differences in culture exist just as attached and unattached earlobes exist. They don’t necessarily imply different ideologies. Varying language systems help preserve diversity, as well. Identifying with one culture over another, though, can be dangerous. Preserving my culture must be as important as preserving your culture, otherwise we end up with self-righteousness and violence. Writing can preserve beautiful cultures, but one must believe in the beauty and value of every culture to avoid degrading ourselves.
I work in IT at a large corporation, and this week I had to confront the practical problems of working across multiple languages and cultures. Our company operates on all continents (except Antarctica, as far as I know). The company is divided roughly into four divisions: Far East (eg, China, Malaysia, Japan), Central (eg, Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Africa), South America, and North America.
After speaking to various IT leaders in the regions, I’m beginning to hear the problems they’re experiencing, namely, that the countries of their respective regions are not communicating with one another and that North America is not communicating effectively with them. Creating an IT team among four leaders, one from each area, challenges any desire to align people along the same goals, unless communication and empathy lie at the core of our interactions.
Differences among the regions
In North America, IT is pretty straightforward. We have a service desk overseas, and the rest of IT is in the US. So if someone has a problem, he or she calls the overseas service desk, and if they can’t help, the call or the issue is escalated to the US IT department. We all conduct IT support in English, except for one of our extended team who works in Spanish.
In region 1, language differences contribute to confusion. (For the sake of discretion, I will not identify the regions in this post, unless the phenomenon is generic to that region.) One service desk exists for all of this region, and it provides service in English. English, however, is the native language neither of the callers nor of the service desk. The help sessions, therefore, tend to be awkward. Some folks in this region work around the system by calling in to the local country IT organization directly, bypassing the service desk. This workaround helps because it allows people to receive IT help in their native language. Two issues that arise from this system, however, are 1) local IT organizations end up spending their time on individual associates’ problems and not on bigger IT issues and 2) if the issues are serious enough, they have to be escalated to North American IT, where we only speak English, and some of the description and notes on the problem may be in another language.
In region 2, language and culture inhibit communication among groups. Our company has operated longer in this region than in region 1. Through the history of the company, each country has functioned nearly autonomously. As a result, each country has its own way of dealing with IT issues, creating IT “silos” who don’t necessarily work with each other. The general help desk in region 2 is in a single country and follows the rules of the country where it finds itself. On the one hand, the service desk functions as such; they provide decent service. On the other hand, it doesn’t communicate much with other IT organizations, including IT in the US.
Need to overcome these communication barriers
IT in the regions and IT in North America, therefore, do not align. Each country’s citizens would rather speak to their own country’s IT in their own language. North America would like to create a uniform IT policy for multiple reasons.
The company could run more efficiently, for example, if the whole company supported a single piece of software for a certain job, rather than different software for different areas, since any software interacts with the rest of the system in unique ways. The IT environment gets unimaginably complicated without uniformity.
The regions function better when they communicate with North America IT because when central IT decides for some change in the IT environment, the regions can participate and adapt quickly.
When the regions run into problems, such as a big backlog of associate issues, North America can only help when they understand how the regions function and can understand the problem description and notes that they read.
Criteria for success
Communication lies at the center of a solution for my company’s IT woes. If IT were to work efficiently and smoothly for the technology users, we would have to succeed in these two areas:
Associates would be able to receive good help in a language they can understand;
IT would work closely among the regions.
Even though IT is located in North America, it cannot operate as the only center. It must partner with the other regions and must lead the pursuit to fulfilling, effective cooperation. To this end, it has to appreciate:
the diversity in each region,
the difficulty in communicating constantly in a foreign language, and
the consequences of its actions for those outside of North America.
For example, I admitted to our associates in Europe and Asia that while I spent a lot of time in Europe, and so I understand the cultural distinctions between northern and southern Germans, I couldn’t tell the cultural distinctions between Filipinos and Vietnamese people.
I do, however, deeply feel the frustration and exhaustion of communicating entirely in another language. I believe, though, that the vast majority of IT folks in North America have not experienced this madness; receiving, let alone giving, step-by-step advice in another language can drive you crazy.
Through my travels and study of other languages, I have seen the consequences of the actions of North America in other countries. I have discussed the coming of US missionaries to the former Soviet Union in the 90s, for example, and the involvement of the US in Lebanese politics. Folks in Ukraine and Lebanon feel frustrated that they must passively accept the consequences of decisions made in Washington, DC.
Successful cooperation among the regions thus necessitates deep and broad experiences of other cultures and languages outside English-speaking North America.
Liberal arts and IT
Every large corporation will inevitably run into the tensions in IT that I have described in my company. Every human wants to communicate easily in his or her own language and to have a say in decisions that affect them. Empathy with those outside the US and the desire to communicate with them will determine long-term success. Those who work in IT, therefore, cannot limit themselves to a technical education. They must immerse themselves in the liberal arts. They must learn to think outside of their own culture to see how one’s actions affect others, they must avail themselves of opportunities to travel, they must learn another language. Not only will this help the company’s bottom-line by increasing efficiency, but will enrich the lives of those working in IT and the associates they are assisting.
What do ineffective intercultural IT teams cost international corporations? What are practical ways that we can prepare our IT teams to work with overseas partners? How can we ready tech-minded people to communicate in difficult situations?
If we assume that offshore ventures will become more common as the global marketplace dominates more of the economy, then firm-wide cultural intelligence will determine companies’ success. The most important question that remains is how do firms increase firm-wide cultural intelligence? Firm-wide cultural intelligence requires fostering cultural intelligence among its individuals. I will now focus on the work necessary to raise individual cultural intelligence through teaching languages.
Learning languages naturally leads to higher overall cultural intelligence based on the four criteria above. Speaking and listening to a language force one to think in a different way. One has to move out of an intuitive mode of communication to a highly self-conscious one (metacognitive). As a result, one gains knowledge about the language and the culture in which it is found (cognitive). Since no language exists in a vacuum, learning the language keeps one in constant contact with the culture. Staying motivated to learn a language keeps one learning about the culture (motivational). Learning about the language heightens interest in the culture the language comes from. Finally, the language becomes the most essential feature in speaking and acting correctly in the culture (behavioral).
Cultural intelligence in one area offers advantages for another. Even if I begin my language/cultural study with Mexico, the increased cultural intelligence transfers to, for example, India. I already know that I have to challenge my cultural assumptions, and that I have to learn aspects of Indian culture. I’ve demonstrated that I’m motivated, and I’m ready to discover the particular speech and actions that are appropriate for various Indian cultural situations. After India I can move into another language/culture, such as the Philippines or China. Cultural intelligence begets more cultural intelligence quickly and easily. Additionally, the skills I use to learn one language transfer to another language.
Firms would find themselves more successful if they hire and foster culturally intelligent individuals. Those knowledgeable in another language–any other language–would stand out as the best candidates. Moreover, by offering ways for workers to increase cultural intelligence–especially through language-study–the firm has more in-house cultural intelligence to draw from for future leadership positions. Firms will enjoy more long-term success in the global marketplace if they invest time and money in language-learning for employees.
If you’re in favor of firms investing more in language and culture training, please “like” this post. Since language and culture study do not offer short-term gains for a firm, what are ways to convince firms to invest in this long-term project of increasing cultural intelligence? Employees already don’t have enough time–where would that time come from? Please let me know your thoughts, below.
In the past week I heard two stories about Americans who felt that they were squeezed out of a conversation. I think there is a solution. Learning a language in both instances could ease tensions and foster empathy.
My friend’s coworker, Amy,* notices that she doesn’t get invited to meetings. This worker collaborates with their office in Israel. She noticed that the Israel office, unfortunately, started scheduling meetings at times when she could not be present. They wanted to hold the meeting in Hebrew, and she doesn’t speak Hebrew. This seemed passive-aggressive. She wants to collaborate with her Israeli colleagues, but they stubbornly insist of excluding her by conducting meetings only in Hebrew and avoiding discussing in English.
One friend, Ahmad,* often does work in China. He enjoys going to China and he likes Chinese people. He finds he has a lot in common with them. Because of putting in time with communicating with non-native English speakers, he has a handle on how to adjust his communication style to fit with the situation.
On occasion he feels marginalized. When he is the only non-Chinese speaker at a meeting, the meeting will lapse into Chinese, and someone will translate the gist of the conversation for him. He knows, though, that he is missing nuances and content that could be valuable for him. Why would they speak Chinese around him when they could just as easily speak in English? Were they trying to push him out of the conversation?
Let me take the Israeli and Chinese point of view for a second. I don’t think the problem is an incompatibility between Americans and Chinese or Israeli people. Speaking a language is hard, even if one wants to order a croissant after studying French for four years. Understanding the response is even harder. Trying results in painful feelings of inferiority. So experiences the Chinese- and Hebrew-speaker at meetings held in English. Granted, ordering a croissant in English may be easy for them, but collaborating on a project, offering ideas in a positive, nuanced way can easily make them feel stupid when it comes out weird or they can’t fully understand the response of their American counterparts.
These Chinese and Israelis likely are not giving Amy and Ahmad the cold shoulder. They may just be anxious or tired. By learning some Chinese or Hebrew and feeling their pain, Amy and Ahmad would display a desire to sympathize with their colleagues. The Americans could sympathize with their colleagues’ need to switch out of English, if only to let their brains rest, or to express to each other what they’re really trying to say. The more we English-speakers try to learn others’ language, the more they see us open ourselves to their struggles through sympathy.
Have you felt shut out of a meeting? Have you managed to make your way back in by learning a language?