Monday, July 2, 2012

Language, Intercultural and Communication

Wordless language vital for intercultural communication

More than 200 linguists and professors in the Asia-Pacific region will gather at the Law School of Sungkyunkwan University (pictured above) in Seoul today for the ninth biennial, three-day communications conference. The participants will present scholarly papers on the implications of culture, nonverbal behavior, values, beliefs and attitudes in communication. Takehide Kawashima, professor of Nihon University in Japan, and Xiaohui Pan, professor of the Shenzhen University in China, are among the participants. / Korea Times file

Many intercultural communication scholars suggest that to survive in the 21st century, we should be armed with linguistic and cultural competence that cuts across cultures.

Linguistic competence includes phonological, morphological and syntactical components, which we call word language, whereas cultural competence comprises nonverbal behaviors, values, beliefs and attitudes, which we call wordless language.

Wordless language is more difficult to cope with than word language, though it is always hard to draw a sharp line between linguistic and cultural elements.

They are so closely intermingled with one another that they are inseparable in most cases. For instance, take the sentence “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” It is so full of cultural overtones and implications that Koreans and Americans interpret it quite differently. Americans view “a rolling stone” as a lively and active individual who is not bogged down by conventions. To Koreans, however, a rolling stone is a loose cannon unable and unwilling to accept the conventions necessary for social harmony. Thus, the sentence could be used in one culture as an encouragement to keep moving on and in another as a warning to settle down.

When discussing verbal and nonverbal behaviors, cultural values, beliefs, that is, thinking and reasoning patterns and attitudes in intercultural communication, we may concentrate on one or another. We must always keep in mind that they are all closely related. Indeed, if we stress only one to the exclusion of others, we are likely to be misled in our interpretation of intercultural communication.

People often say that learning and adapting to another language, difficult though it is, poses less of a problem than being sensitive to the range of nonverbal behaviors that differ. These nonverbal behaviors can be accommodated or even mastered if one is young enough, but conflicts in cultural values may be unavoidable. While one may come to understand or at least appreciate the vital differences in cultural values, many have given up trying to understand how another person “reasons” or “thinks”.

Language is a system which can be studied, described, and taught. We know much more about language and languages than about any of the other areas.

If one is speaking a second or third language and makes a mistake, it may immediately be apparent to a native speaker, and it can be questioned and corrected.

It is far easier psychologically as well as physiologically, to repeat a word and ask its meaning than to repeat a raised eyebrow or frown and ask what such gestures mean. Dictionaries can be helpful, within limits, but we have no dictionaries for nonverbal behaviors, values, culturally different patterns of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes.

I do not mean to suggest that learning another language is a simple matter. Language study is demonstrably more systematic, and far better understood. When a person hears words in a language he has never studied, he does not understand the words. In many cases, a person can completely misunderstand without ever realizing that he has misunderstood.

For example, when a Hawaiian waves her hand vertically, palm outward, it means "goodbye". But Koreans take it as a signal "to come here.’’

Unlike verbal and nonverbal behavior, cultural values cannot be recorded directly on tape or film. Values are abstractions, concepts, or ways of organizing a large amount of otherwise apparently unrelated behavior.

We often talk about the differences between “American English” and “British English,” noting differences in spellings and pronunciation. These are minor, superficial differences. The greater differences, at least as they lead to misunderstandings, are in values which may be expressed in words or other kinds of behavior. If an American and an Englishman meet for tea at the home of the Englishman, the American may reach over and help himself to some sugar or cream. If he does so, the English host might be annoyed, for as a guest the American should wait until he is offered the sugar and cream. The Englishman’s value here might be said to be: “be my guest.” The American’s value might be expressed as: “make yourself at home.” The Englishman might interpret the American’s behavior as rude or arrogant.

On the other hand, if the Englishman were a guest at the American’s home for coffee, and he waited to be invited to take sugar or cream, the American might be annoyed: “Why are you English so stuffy and stand-offish!” This is a good example, I think, because the two cultures are similar, and there is certainly no problem here of language or even gestures.

Varied ways of reasoning exist, so we can expect variations from culture to culture. Germans stress logic, while Koreans, Japanese and Chinese reject the Western system of logic. The Arab world is characterized by an intuitive and affective reasoning, while an axiomatic, deductive sort is practiced in Russia. What is universal is that each culture has a reasoning process, but each shows the process in its own way.

The differences between cultures can be illustrated by examining the reasoning processes of Americans, Europeans and Asians. Following the Western style, Americans are logical and analytical, relying on scientific induction. They seek out the facts and then apply rational principles to them to combine the facts into an orderly and consistent whole. Facts are essential. With the facts at hand, Americans proceed to ideas -- thinking inductively.

Using a deductive, abstract style of thinking, Europeans consider ideas first. They do not need to assume facts, and they tend to generalize from one idea to the next by means of logic. Europeans place greater stress on powers of thought; Americans emphasize empirical observation and measurement. Though both cultures differ in their use of inductive and deductive thinking, both also follow an Aristotelian reasoning pattern, logical and analytical.

Asians, by and large, are non-Aristotelian by nature. Most Asian cultures practice a reasoning process that is not logical and analytical, but more intuitive and meditative, stressing introspection and contemplation. Greater attention is given to the unity between objective facts and subjective feelings and less to analyzing and breaking a subject into smaller units as tends to be done by Westerners. Asians are not as effective in learning the “facts” about something. They are better at maintaining group harmony and not hurting individual feelings.

We are not born with attitudes. They begin to form soon after we are old enough to begin to comprehend the world around us. We learn to respond favorably or unfavorably toward objects, people and ideas.

Attitudes are founded on beliefs, guided by our values and motivated by our needs. They are part of the behavioral predispositions that run our lives. A variety of attitudes exist. For the intercultural communicator, ethnocentrism, stereotypes and prejudices are important. They affect communication across cultures directly and broadly. Let’s take ethnocentrism for instance.

The ethnocentric tradition of human beings is such a powerful one that has flowed on in majestic continuity from the old times to the present day. Take, for example, the historic event of the Holy Wars between the Christians and the Muslims during the Middle Ages. In Western textbook accounts of the wars, they refer to the Christians as crusaders and Muslims as religious fanatics. If Muslims read accounts of the wars, they would call the Christians fanatics. Bloody conflicts between Christians and Muslims are still going on.

The ancient Chinese felt that unless a person spoke Chinese and observed Chinese customs, he or she was a barbarian. During the occupation of Asian countries by the Japanese, many rebellions occurred. Those who fought against the Japanese are still referred to as patriots in their own countries, but by the Japanese they are known as rebellious murderers. A recently coined expression, one man’s patriot is another man’s traitor, seems appropriate to our age.

(The writer is a professor emeritus of Dankook University and chairman of Jinseok Co. The article is an abridgement of his opening speech at the biennial three-day communication conference today at the Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul under the sponsorship of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association.)

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