Language as a Tool for Intercultural understanding


No one wants to be misinterpreted or misunderstood and yet not all of us speak the same language.  Our world is shaped by a variety of languages unique to a particular group of people within specific geographical context though spread further apart.  People make the most of language as a medium of information exchange and an integral way of life. 

Language also has a great deal of influence over thought processes and perception of reality.  For instance, the cultural environment that people grow up in can have startling effects on how they interpret the world around them.  Culture really does determine language to a greater extent in many aspects like nature, direction, color etc.  As a matter of fact, new research shows that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. Hence, in an endeavor to fully understand the expression of people including their customs and traditions; one must firstly unlock the way people communicate using language.  

Nowadays technological advances have made it possible to translate the world’s major languages of economic and political power, such as English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Arabic, and a few more with millions of speakers from developed countries.  However, it is sometimes difficult to exactly interpret another language without analytical and synthetic approaches.  Every so often, languages transmitted through direct speech, written communication, radio or television, and the internet require some sort of linguistic commentary because of the complicated nature of languages.

One of the issues that come to mind when discussing language and culture is to understand how people perceive language and dialect.  The notion of distinctness among languages and dialect is much harder to resolve because of the political and social consideration trump purely linguistic reality, and the criterion of mutual intelligibility.  Max Weinreich asserted that “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”  Max also revealed the status of Yiddish was long considered a “dialect” because it was not identified with any politically significant entity.  This assertion has proven to be a reality in developing countries, most especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the people’s distinct languages are considered dialects possibly due to issues of statehood, economics, literary traditions, and writing systems. 

Since languages have the potential to greatly influence people’s speech and thought, it is important to tolerate and respect the expression of all languages rather than downplaying others.  People feel much more accepted when conversing with someone in their native tongue.  Besides, languages have the power to create a sense of identity among members of groups – ethnic, national, religious, and gender.  Therefore, it is imperative for language awareness to be cultivated so as to explore linguistic and cultural diversity in the world and to instill appreciation of all languages among people of different background, creed, or status.

To promote peaceful coexistence and build a holistic society based on fundamental principles of human dignity, we must forge a strong and unity spirit of fostering language awareness to become a tool for building intercultural understanding and nurturing multilingualism.  It is up to us to make our languages not to serve as barriers for progress, but a value for prosperity.  It is up to us to encourage the learning of diverse languages and cultures so as to prepare posterity to live in harmony and at peace with their neighbors.  And, it is up to us provide opportunities for mother tongue use and preservation, and work in partnership with parents and community members to offer valuable linguistic and cultural resources.

In this digital and connected world of the 21st Century, we must muster the courage to prevent languages from disappearing, because they part of our cultural heritage.  So, countries with relatively plenty should assist poor nations to invest in language awareness as one of the surest way of advancing world peace.  We must change our perception about language and dialect, and instead concentrate on understanding the mechanisms through which languages help us construct the incredibly complex knowledge systems we have.  As a people, we must seek to bridge the gap of language dominance, ethnic supremacy, and tribal superiority so as to create ideas that go beyond the currently thinkable. 

For far too long, we have lived in a world confronted with challenges that could be resolved when people understand each other and work together for the common good of all.  Now is the time for us to begin the work of nurturing cultural diversity and languages.  From this moment onward, let all nations rise up to protect the worth and dignity of every human person to express their language.

About the Author:  Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder & Executive Director, Youth Exploring Solutions selected for participation in the Community Solutions Program, a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the United States Department of State and implemented by IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board).  The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the Community Solutions Program, the U.S. Department of State, or IREX. 

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