Are Language Skills Enough?

There is so much more meaning to a message than
what exists in the spoken/written word. For example, if a person says,
“You know, Barbara, I really like you” it will have different meanings
depending on if it is said by/to a man or a woman, in a work
environment or a bar. Eye contact, physical distance, relationship
between the speaker and listener, context, the tone of voice, and the
stress put on certain words are all aspects of the message which give
meaning to the words being said. In fact, these factors can provide
much more meaning than the words themselves. Sarcasm is a perfect
example of how non-linguistic aspects of communication relay meaning.
If a friend says to me, “Gee, I can't wait to vote in the upcoming
election”, the way I interpret that message will be based upon my
knowledge of my friend's political views, the situation with the
current campaign, and my ability to understand the meaning behind the
tone of voice.

Our ability to interpret such cues is subconsciously developed through
our process of socialization. The meanings that we attach to certain
non-verbal aspects of communication seem inherent to us. Our
interpretation of these cues just comes naturally. Now take into
consideration that every culture has its own set of cultural cues that
each member of that culture understands. It's easy to see how a person
from Culture A and a person from Culture B may interpret the very same
words in totally different ways. Here are some examples:

When Sarcasm Means Sincerity
Marsha thought things were going well with her new French friends,
particularly Bertrand. He continually invited her to interesting and
fun events, but he was constantly making fun of her. One day at an art
exhibit, while looking at a particularly abstract piece, Marsha says
that she cannot understand what the artist was trying to express.
Bertrand smiles and responds, “Yes, I'm afraid French art is far too
advanced for Americans to comprehend.” Marsha was desperate; she really
liked him and could not figure out what she was doing to cause his
constant teasing, so she asked her host mother about it. “My dear,” the
host mother told her, “this means that he really likes you. In France,
when someone feels comfortable enough to tease you, that means that you
have been welcomed as an intimate friend.”

When Now Doesn't Mean Now
Joshua, an American student in Heredia, Costa Rica, called his Costa
Rican intercambio partner to meet for coffee. When he asked what time
they should meet, the response was “Nos encontramos ahora en el
parque.” For Joshua (and the dictionary), “ahora” literally means
“now.” So, he grabbed his jacket and headed straight to the park where
he sat on a bench and waited for over half an hour. His friend arrived
without the least sign of repentance for being late. After discussing
the matter with his Spanish teacher, Joshua learned that in Costa Rica,
“ahora” means sometime within the hour. And, if you are meeting a
friend someplace like the park, it is expected that it is no problem
for one or the other person to wait for a while because you will spend
some nice time sitting in the park, probably running into some other
friends, or meeting someone friendly also sitting on a bench.

When Yes Doesn't Mean Yes
Many business people have experienced this frustrating scenario in
Japan. Sarah, a young businesswoman from New York, was sent to Japan to
close a big deal for her company. While giving her pitch, she became
more and more sure of the sale because her Japanese counterparts
continually nodded their heads as she spoke. When she finished, she
thought the deal was made and asked when they would like to sign the
contract. She was shocked when she was told that they were not yet sure
if they wanted to make the deal or not. What Sarah did not know is that
in Japan, nodding of the head does not necessarily mean yes as it does
in the U.S. It can also mean “Yes, I am listening and understanding
what you are saying."

These stories provide just a few examples of how language skills are
simply not enough to achieve effective communication in another
culture. To get the most out of your international learning experience,
focus on gaining cross-cultural skills as well as linguistic ones.
Cross-cultural skills will enable you to:
1) Understand how culture effects communication (your own and that of others)
2) Deal with behaviors that, to you, seem strange or annoying
3) Learn from your cultural adaptation process
4) Communicate more effectively.

These skills will also help you in your pursuit to learn a new
language. After all, language is a reflection of the culture from which it developed.

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