Your English, my English

Your English, my English

“Shall we have breakfast tomorrow?”
“Yes, good idea”

Breakfast. A simple word, widely understood. But is it that simple?

Its meaning changes with culture:

  • For the French, it is a croissant and a coffee;
  • For the British, it is eggs and bacon, toast and tea;
  • For the German, it is bread rolls with cheese, marmalade, etc. and coffee;
  • For the Chinese, it is soups, steamed dumplings and tea
  • And so on…

Adapted from John Twitchin Centre for Intercultural Development

Internationally, we exchange mainly in English which has become the language of international communication or ‘lingua franca’. When abroad, executives communicate in English if they don’t speak the language of the country. I use ‘country’ advisedly, as some have several languages, such as India.

What may surprise these executives is that although English is being used, it may not be the same English as theirs; this is particularly true for a native English speaker. Words or the vocabulary may not have the same meaning, the order in which the words are placed may not be the same. This makes understanding more difficult.

Two people from different cultures speaking English fluently as a second or third language, will each start from the assumption that they will understand each other. That assumption could prove to be quite unsafe because the way they use the language is influenced by their respective cultures in many ways:

  • the vocabulary, the same word may mean something different;
  • the insertion of local words, loanwords, meaningless to the other party;
  • the structure of the sentences will reflect the logic of the culture;
  • the pronunciation with an accent can reduce comprehension in the listener’s mind;
  • the intonation and emphasis on certain words will change the meaning.

In verbal exchanges we take a number of things for granted based on the linguistic code or our understanding of it, giving rise to expectations of a certain response. This is the ‘script’ or framework in which the language operates. The language has its own accepted filters to facilitate communication; we have been using these filters that amount to facilitators or shortcuts for so long we are not aware of them; in the same way as very often we are not aware of our own culture, like the fish are not aware of the water they swim in.

The problem arises when the response we get back is not the one we expected or the meaning behind said response is not aligned with the one we give it. It is all the more problematic that the misalignment is as unobvious as it is unexpected.

This is to say that communication does not necessarily lead to understanding; particularly true in intercultural communication, where misperception, misinterpretation and misevaluation are never very far.

The spoken word is only part of the communication; body language, hand movements and facial expressions are even more important in the transmission of the message.

Intercultural communication skills can be learnt, and their acquisition is strongly recommended for the success of the enterprise. These skills will flag up delicate situations before they become a mountain to climb and so corrective action can be taken.

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