Now You’re Speaking My Language!

What does language say about us?


Language |ˈlaNGgwij| (noun)

1 the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way: a study of the way children learn language | [ as modifier ] : language development.
• any nonverbal method of expression or communication: a language of gesture and facial expression.
2 the system of communication used by a particular community or country: the book was translated into twenty-five languages.

Introduction

Language is an essential part of our humanity: more than our intelligence or emotions, it’s what truly makes us unique in the animal kingdom. There are many intelligent animals: dolphins, apes, and parrots, to name a few. And several animals feel: think of how your dog’s mood changes the instant it sees you, and primates have been shown to display empathy. But our systems of language — far more complex than anything seen amongst animals — set us apart from our animal bretheren.

Language permeates and affects every facet of our existence: our thoughts shape our speech and actions, which communicate these thoughts to fellow humans. This, in turn, shapes everything we collectively do: sealing boardroom deals, passing legislation, instigating change… every skyscraper, civilization, organization and product came to be through language that enabled the necessary processes, decisions and chain of events that led to them.

Language and Culture

Language also communicates a lot about specific groups of people. According to Ethnologue, there are over 6,909 languages and dialects spoken in the world — and that’s just the ones we’re aware of! The language you speak helps shape your worldview (to a certain extent), and conversely, each language communicates unique things about a country or culture’s norms, customs and overall “personality.” German, for example, has complex rules, but rarely deviates from them — reflecting Germany’s famous penchant for efficiency and structure. Likewise, the Japanese title “-san” is added to not just superiors or elders, but also tradespeople (booksellers are addressed as “honya-san”), speaking to Japanese culture’s respect for social roles and hierarchy.

Tellingly, a key part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which sought to purge both traditional and foreign elements from Chinese society, was simplifying the Chinese language. Setting aside the broader debate on the Cultural Revolution, it’s clear that Mao understood language’s power and importance.

Some Romantic Examples

To further illustrate, let’s look at romance languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. They all evolved from Latin, as hinted in the name: “romance” is derived from romanice (Romanicus in Classical Latin), which means “Roman.” So all these languages have linguistic roots in Ancient Rome. As such, while being fully distinguishable from one another, they also share similar structures, grammar and vocabularies.

They’re also beautiful languages, and soothing on the ears — ironic, as they’re derived from “vulgar” Latin, spoken by the plebeian masses, and looked down upon by Rome’s upper crust. Even non-speakers like listening to romance languages: my English-speaking girlfriend loves hearing me speak Spanish, and even though she doesn’t understand one word, she still attributes to it a fluid and lyrical quality. As a Spanish speaker, I find the words flow naturally and effortlessly; both the sentence structure and individual words easily lend themselves to poetry and song.

Sure enough, this says a lot about Spanish-speaking cultures, especially in Latin America. A Puerto Rican cab driver told me, about Mexico, “¡Es una tierra donde hasta las piedras cantan!” (Translation: “It’s a place where even the stones on the ground sing!”) And sure enough, this penchant for song, most famously known through mariachi music, says a lot about Mexican culture: despite Mexico’s many troubles, the people are exceptionally warm, hospitable, and friendly, as one would expect from a people that collectively reaps singing’s soothing, therapeutic, and community-building qualities.

Similarly, hearing French conjures images of strolling down the streets of Paris with your lover. France’s association with love and sensuality is not coincidental: it stems from romanticism, which was born during the French Revolution, and is now associated with intensely affectionate feelings and gestures (“❤ Oh, trés romantique!”). The French are also a very proud people — for some outsiders, to the point of arrogance and elitism — and this can be traced back to both France’s long and rich cultural history, as well as French’s historical designation as the language of diplomacy.

It’s clear that one can learn much about a culture from studying its native language.

Applications in Real Life

This, of course, has practical implications for engaging people from other cultures. Every traveler has a story about how they unwittingly committed a major faux-paus overseas by saying something that, while sounding innocuous to them, was inappropriate in their host country. Studying a country’s language, and said language’s use, can give insights into that culture’s rules and norms, minimizing the chance of offending people.

Likewise, in business, managers often have to work with multi-cultural teams, and cultural misunderstandings are a frequent cause of friction and disharmony, both within the same team, and between other teams. Cultural fluency is a key management skill in this globalized economy, and studying team members’ native languages can greatly help resolve conflicts and maximize team productivity and satisfaction.

And in both cases, even making an effort to speak the other’s language goes a long way in bringing down barriers. It makes sense: open communication is the first step towards building rapport and diffusing tensions, and a mutually-spoken language enables such communication. Furthermore, professional communicators know that they must cater to their audiences. There’s a saying, which we’ve all heard, that sums up this gem of wisdom:

“Now you’re speaking my language!”

Disclaimer

The following may seem obvious, but it bears stating: though languages can greatly inform us about the people and cultures that speak them, we must always be careful to avoid stereotyping. Culture is a huge influence on individuals’ thoughts and behavior, but not every person follows a culture’s norms or customs. More importantly, each individual is different, with a fully unique history, personality, value system and life experience that equally influences and informs them.

While keeping cultural norms in mind, never think that someone is bound to act by them. Instead, expect that person to act as an individual — influenced by everything that makes them unique. Then, apply what you know about that person’s culture to communicate more effectively.

A New Year’s Resolution

How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Having second thoughts about that juice cleanse or new jogging routine? Or maybe you also want to exercise your mental muscle? I have an idea for you.

Most people make resolutions about eating and exercise habits, but I strongly believe that everyone — particularly communications professionals — should immerse themselves in at least one language, and maintain an ongoing, casual study of language in general. Learn not just the formal language, but also its slang, history, cultural context, regional variations and etymology.

Learning a language will not only give you a highly marketable skill, it’ll also sharpen your brain and broaden your perspectives on the world and its many cultures. Plus, you’ll be able to speak to millions — perhaps billions — of people you couldn’t speak to before. How amazing is that?

Jay Rooney handles external communications at New America Media, where he routinely engages colleagues, partners and clients from several countries and cultures. He’s also had a bicultural upbringing, speaks fluent Spanish, and can order a drink in French and German.