What does your language say?

 

I love learning languages to see how they reflect and infuse the respective culture. There’s the superficial indirectness of my mother tongue British English – which often elicits the pained Dutch reply, ‘Why don’t you just say what you want?’ There are the numerous hierarchical levels of formality in Japanese, and the range of terms for older and younger relatives. There’s the seismic relationship shift in German from Sie to Du when the outsider is allowed in. There’s the external environment focus of the religious Arabic invocations inshallah and alhamdulillah and the similarly external Malaysian loan expression watudo? And then there’s the internal control orientation of Nike’s ‘Just Do It’.

On an organisational level, the language of an engineer is vastly different from that of a marketer, the growing brevity of emails remote from the formality of a business proposal. It is not too hard to distinguish Virgin’s language from that of Barclays. Each organisational team has its own jargon, its own linguistic shorthand, and its own preferred style of communication. Mastering this language – along with other organisational rituals and artefacts – is an essential step in any new join’s assimilation. And just like the surrounding cultures, languages are in a constant state of flux, dropping obsolete terms and acquiring and becoming richer through new loan words and expressions as if they were immigrants.

For decades, linguists have argued over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that is, that speakers of different languages conceptualise and experience the world differently. It is a largely discredited view – through the work primarily of Chomsky’s universal grammar and communication chunks and also Pinker – but one that has not entirely disappeared.

Lera Boroditsky has an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal (written back in 2010 but with a long LinkedIn shelf-life) in which she makes a number of observations based on language and culture. She writes, for example, that Russian speakers, who have several words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue. Another claim she makes is that some indigenous tribes have high spatial orientation proficiency levels through using north, south, east and west rather than left and right. She talks through the Humpty Dumpty story showing how different languages would relate the tale, from the Turkish having to specify if the narrator saw it with their own eyes or heard about it from someone else, to the Russian need to specify the gender. She then asks the much debated question about whether speakers of different languages would attend to, understand and remember such an experience differently…

Self-help gurus from Robin Sharma to Tony Robbins to Michael Heppell take this to the next level by exhorting us to actively choose our language. They posit that we can banish negative thoughts and drives by using only positive language. Aside from the simple self-encouragement of a mental ‘You can do it’, we could also argue that with a conversation partner, you are initiating an affirmative communication loop through the use of positive language. As in mirroring, like breeds like. The interlocutor responds positively, which in turn reinforces your own positive mood…

And did you know where that word guru comes from? Of course you did. Sanskrit (my own guru has just told me), and used as a loan word in Bahasa, the language I’m learning right now. It means teacher.

FURTHER READING

  • Lera Boroditsky: Lost In Translation, Wall Street Journal – July 23, 2010
  • Daniel Everett: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
  • Michael Heppell – How To Be Brilliant
  • Steven Pinker – The Language Instinct

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.

 
 
  1. marily franco 04/07/2013, 3:01 pm

    Julian, congratulations for your post. I have found it very very interesting point of view!