The Effective Communicator
Language is the window into the worldview of a people. The difference between their language and yours will give you some important insights into the difference between their culture and yours, their expectations and yours, their beliefs and yours, their selfidentity and yours. Seeing how they view and interact with their world will give you important clues to the adjustments required of you to operate appropriately and successfully in their world.
You are the stranger, you are the unproven one, you are the one on trial. The language is the perfect starting point to identify the important differences and make progress toward earning trust, credibility and acceptance. Without the language, the window to their world is closed.
Language and Thought
Language is involved in how people think. Insights into how their language works gives you insights into how they think and relater to the world around them. Language gives you insights into their self-identity and expectations, as a people and as individuals.
Consider the following English examples from African speakers:
How are you for many days?
He is just coming.
Where did I keep it?
I am not knowing.
Where do you stay?
Me: I have just been to the headquarters office.
Her: So you are from there.
Consider these translations from Kenyan languages:
Sleep safely. Go safely.
What do you hear? ... No, there is nothing bad.
What might such phrases tell you about how reality is organized for the local people? What can you tell about the priorities of the people from their phrases?
Think about this English example, on a train:
When does the dining car open? After El Paso.
Would a foreigner find this confusing?
Think of the cultural context.
I was born in Oklahoma, where my parents were born
I grew up in Texas from age 2 1/2 to 15
I finished high school and University in Arkansas
After graduation my wife and I came to Kenya
We spent two years in Texas in further preparation
My wife and I lived in Kenya for 25 years, except for periodic visits to the United States
Our children were born and raised in Kenya
I have since lived and worked in Cyprus and South Africa
I recently lived for a period of 4 years in Virginia, where I have no prior connections, before going back to Africa
How do I answer this question: Where are you from?
What does someone expect in a question they ask you? What do they understand in the questions you ask? In the comments you make?
Orientation in Culture in Language
The value of language for cultural orientation and relating to the people was underscored for me in a trip to Nigeria in 1991. I toured 6 states of the country with the Entry Orientation Coordinator of a large Christian mission in Nigeria. We interviewed language learners still in their first year of field orientation or having just finished. I was evaluating their learning experiences to make recommendations to the agency.
All these learners made one point without exception, that spending one year or more learning one of the 450 languages of the country was of definite value even when it was only minimally useful in the actual missionary task.
They commented that going through the learning process enabled them to understand how the people think and live, and it helped to understand their English. Some decided for this reason to go immediately into a second language, such as Pidgin English, for practical enhancement of relationship skills and task performance.
Effectiveness and Competence
Effectiveness is your goal. How can you make the most effective contribution in your adopted culture or temporary country of residence? Competence in crosscultural communication is a critical component of reaching that goal.
Communicating competently across cultural barriers is enabled or enhanced by facility in the language of the host people. When we as communicators use our native language, we require them as the respondents to cross the cultural barrier into our world.
In doing so we accept that we will be crippled and dependent, we decide to limit ourselves to task performance in a foreigner's role, rather than aiming for personal relationships as an accepted member of the group. Let's not be satisfied with these limitations.
Further, it is still all too common to see Westerners who expect the nationals of countries they work in to bend to their perspective and come into the conceptual world of the westerner, to get the benefit of their teaching, their technology, their ideas, their help. Shouldn’t we be past this kind of cultural imperialism by now!?
Be the best communicator you can be! Don’t setle for second best! Learn as much as you can of the worldview of the people you work with. The language is a rich resource!
Language and the Cognitive Worldview
Original article published as “Language: The Window to their World” in the series The Effective Communicator in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, December 1992
Rewritten version posted on SLRK 13 October 2008
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1992, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.