Language in cross-cultural understanding

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Much of our understanding of the world comes from words: the words that others use to describe their experiences and impressions to us. And much of what others know, about what we have learned, comes from the words that we use to explain it. But what about our education if the words that others use are not accurate? And, what is our responsibility as we share information? To accurately and sensitively convey our experiences and impressions we should choose the best words for the job. One step to creating better international understanding is to be conscientious about using language that accurately conveys what we mean.

It's been said, many times in many ways, that language structures our thinking and opinions. The adage seems hold especially true for Westerners' perceptions of non-Westerners and more specifically non-White cultures. Take the words: "hut" and "palace". They probably create two very different pictures in your mind's eye, because language structures our thinking.

In several parts of Africa, royal families are involved in agriculture and sleep at "the palace" which is a complex of detached, usually one-room structures commonly made of daga (adobe). The buildings have a variety of purposes and come in a variety of shapes and sizes: some are used for sleeping (bedrooms), some for congregating (living rooms), some for cooking (kitchens) and others for storage (pantries or granaries.) Africans, speaking their indigenous languages would not call any of these "huts".

A hut, as defined by Webster, is: 1. A crudely built dwelling or shelter. 2. A temporary structure for sheltering troops. If you return from traveling and tell your friends, 1) "I slept in a hut", or 2) "I slept in a palace", your friends will have a very different image about your experience. You will influence, through your selection of words, how your friends will view your experience, and through extension, the lives of the people you met and their quality of life.

So if you slept with the royal family, did you sleep in a hut or a palace? Your choice of words can show the bias in how you view the world.

The words and ideas that Westerners typically associates with Africa and other non-western cultures are: "Third World" "natives" who live in "huts" and practice "witch craft." Unfortunately most of the messages we have received since childhood about our fellow non-western man and woman grossly simplify their lives and denigrates their state of being. It is a lexicon that has been generated, built and spread by ethnocentric western anthropologists, missionaries, educators and Hollywood.

The fact that non-Westerners also, when speaking our English and French, use terms like "natives," "huts," and "witch craft" doesn't validate the accuracy of the vocabulary. One of the lasting legacy of a century of foreign domination and oppression is language. Here the consequence of language structuring thinking is perhaps even more destructive and tragic because it moves from opinion to identity. To escape the pejorative labels and humiliation that language has brought to them and to boost self-esteem, many people born into non-western cultures have felt compelled to "educate" and "westernize" and to adopt the western devaluation of their "uneducated" countrymen and women - ironically, some of whom may speak five or more different languages, and are extraordinary medical botanists, theologians or agronomists in their home environments.

Though it is expedient, a lack of knowledge or a limited vocabulary is not justification for debasing and misrepresenting something. There is an axiom, "It is better to sit quietly and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it beyond all doubt." Until we can learn accurately, find some new words and be descriptive about the broader world it is better to continue to research and explore, than expostulate. So how can we be more descriptive with language.

First, you might have to erase from your minds the vocabulary you use for non- western cultures and the values they embody. Starting with a clean slate, we can learn a vocabulary that imparts a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. Second, it is important to respect other people's terms of self-identification. Ask, learn, remember and use the descriptions that they prefer.

The following are some vocabulary tips. Though not an exhaustive list, it should help you be more sensitive, objective and accurate in your observations of non-western cultures.
World Order

"Third World", though widely used, is a misleading and vague phase. It is used so generally that it is difficult to determine what's being described. It implies a hierarchy. But who defined the order and on what basis was it established? Is the hierarchy really there? Does "Third World" refer to economics health, political sophistication, geographical area, social structure, arts and cultural complexity, national achievement, military might, or ethical and moral values?

On some scales of "development" a country with lower and more efficient energy consumption might rank ahead of a wasteful nonproductive energy guzzling nation. If we are discussing cultural character any ranking risks being subjective and ethnocentric. Ranking the ethics and morals of other societies is always difficult especially when they are sophisticated and complex, and you don't understand them.

In talks about economics you can speak of "lower average per capital income countries." Politically the reference may be to "newly- independent countries." Geographically your subject may be "distant lands" or name the continent or country. Culturally, the reference is probably to societies that are "non-western", as oppose to a "third world culture."

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