The Incredible Influence of Languages on Human Behavior!
To fully understand and know a people you must be intimately familiar with key words in their native language that control their thinking and behavior—a fact of incredible importance that has not yet become common knowledge even among scholars and educators, much less diplomats, politicians and the international business community. Incredibly, the relationship between languages and cultural behavior is still only dimly perceived or is ignored altogether, with the result that the world is continuously roiled by misunderstandings, friction and violence. America’s Cultural Failures During the 1950s when I was based in Tokyo I was astounded to discover that almost all of the dialogue that American Embassy personnel had with their Japanese government counterparts—and particularly with the Japanese public—was with and through English-speaking Japanese—not American embassy staff who spoke Japanese. What was even more astounding, I was told that it was the policy of the American diplomatic service not to assigned young Americans who had gone through Japanese language training courses to the Embassy in Tokyo for fear that they would “go native,” and not properly represent American interests. The policy, it was said, was to assign them to a South American or European country for a minimum of three years before assigning them to the Embassy in Japan. For their part, American businesspeople did not begin to seriously pick up on the importance of languages in their international operations until the 1980s and 90s. The loss in business opportunities and in time—not to mention the stress and frustration experienced by monolingual employees trying to do business with other countries—can only be estimated. American businesspeople abroad having to depend upon their foreign counterparts to speak English was also a major disadvantage that created one problem after the other. During the 1960s and 70s as many as half of all Americans dispatched overseas by their employers failed to perform adequately or failed altogether because they could not speak the host language and could not adapt to the local cultures. The American military was even slower in recognizing the connection between languages and culture and its ability to carry out its missions—and has been even further behind in taking steps to remedy this serious situation, despite the lessons learned during the war with native Americans in the last half of the 19th century, and again during World Wars I and II and all of our more recent wars. The Blind Educating the Blind It was not until the first years of this century that some American educators began to understand the importance of languages in human behavior and to advocate teaching foreign languages in schools as one of the skills necessary to understand and deal effectively with other people. And still today only a few American educators have even achieved enough common sense to recognize that babies and toddlers can be exposed to and learn two or three languages at the same time, and that instead of damaging or restricting their intellectual development it makes them smarter and gives them a much broader, innate understanding of other people. It was not until the advent of all-out war with Islamic radicals that some American bureaucrats and politicians on all levels of government began to think and talk about the need to understand the culture of Islam. Mainstream Americans in particular have traditionally been insensitive to the cultures of minorities in the United States, automatically assuming that they would soon become homogenized and making no effort to learn anything about them—other than developing a taste for their ethnic foods. The American attitude toward the cultures of those still living in their native countries has traditionally been even more myopic. The general consensus, both conscious and subconscious, has been that these people would be all right as soon as they became Americanized. This systematic failing, which is certainly not limited to Americans, has traditionally resulted from lack of cross-cultural experience and ongoing ignorance of the nature of cultures. Languages, Not Things, Transmit Culture Most people still today mistakenly regard the arts and crafts of individual societies as their “culture.” Arts and crafts reflect culture but they do not create it and they do not transmit it. You can view and collect Chinese artifacts or Eskimo artifacts all your life and you will not become fully conversant with the cultures that created them. What most of mankind has missed over the millennia has been the relationship between language and culture. Languages are, in fact, the repository as well as the transmitter of cultures. Languages are the essence, the tone, the flavor and the spirit of cultures, and serve as doorways to understanding them. The influence that indigenous languages have on the values, attitudes and behavior of people is fundamental, and is one of the primary reasons why the present-day world is in a constant state of turmoil. We cannot communicate fully and effectively across the cultural barriers inherent in languages. It is fairly simple to interpret or translate technical subjects from one language into another, but translating cultural attitudes and values into another language ranges from difficult to impossible. The translations may be perfectly correct as far as the words are concerned, but they seldom if ever include all of the cultural nuances that are bound up in the words and are the essence of the original language. This results in people talking at each other instead of to each other—and generally neither side understands why they are seldom if ever in perfect agreement with each other…why they cannot get along. It takes no great intellect or scholarship to recognize that the French think and behave differently from all other people, sometimes in subtle ways and other times in ways that are very conspicuous. This difference applies to all people who are separated from others by language, and because typical Americans are the least sensitive to these cultural differences, they often find themselves criticized and attacked by foreigners seemingly without cause—not to mention the mistakes they typically make in interacting with people of other cultures. There are obviously several factors in the creation of languages that make them unique, and these cultural-laden factors are not the result of conscious planning. They evolve naturally from a variety of influences that fashion and control the lifestyles of the people involved. The Amazing Navajo Language The language of the Navajo people of the American Southwest is a good example. It was not discovered until well into the 20th century that the Navajo language has a very large vocabulary that in many areas of thought is richer than English, French and other major languages. The Navajo language has a larger and far more refined vocabulary relating to natural phenomena and human relationships than most of the world’s modern languages. Among other things, the sophistication of the Navajo language resulted in the Navajos being natural poets. Many of their poetic chants and songs are sublime in the beauty of their wording and in the philosophy they express. Without being steeped in the Navajo language it is simply impossible to understand the depth of the feelings that are expressed in these poems and to fully appreciate what they mean to Navajos. Any attempt to truly understand the character and personality of Chinese Germans, Japanese, Koreans, Mexicans or any other group of people—to put yourself in their shoes, as the saying goes—must include a deep knowledge of the cultural essences of their languages, and this is a challenge facing mankind that cannot be easily or quickly resolved. Universal Translators Are Not the Solution Star Trek type universal translators are now technically feasible and there are a growing number of them already on the market. But they translate only the technical and objective meaning of the words; not the subjective meanings; not the cultural nuances. They simply cannot transmit or communicate feelings. During my own decades of experience in Japan I have often said that not being able to talk to the Japanese in their language means that you are forever barred from entering their cultural circle—from understanding and expressing thoughts with the same essence, the same tone and the same flavor that is inherent in the Japanese language. I have also said this is like taking a shower while wearing a water-proof suit. Inability to communicate in Japanese means that the visitor to Japan cannot participate fully in many of the cultural customs that are so dear to the hearts of the Japanese. One of the most important of these customs is the enkai (inn-kigh), which is usually translated as “Japanese style banquet” and is a kind of generic term that refers to a gathering where food and drinks are served, short speeches are made and there is usually singing and some other kinds of entertainment. The first enkai of record occurred in the 7th century A.D. at the Imperial Court on New Year’s Day, starting a tradition of other such parties being held on other auspicious occasions during the year that has continued down to the present time. In 1873 the celebration was renamed Shinnen Enkai (sheen-nane inn-kigh), or New Year’s Banquet, and was held on January 5th. Enkai were discontinued as an Imperial Court event after World War II, but they were continued by the general public as a way of celebrating special occasions any time of the year, including New Year’s and at the end of the year, when they were called Bonen Kai (boh-nane kigh), or “Party to Forget the Year” just ending. Shinnen Kai and Bonen Kai are still held annually by the thousands throughout Japan, but there are dozens of thousands more that are held to celebrate promotions, company events, farewell parties, assignments abroad, political rallies, family gatherings, welcoming parties (for new company or club members), etc. In earlier times the locations for enkai were almost always restaurants or halls that had Japanese style rooms with reed-mat ( tatami ) floors, but now many, especially large ones, are also held in hotel banquet halls that are Western style, with tables and chairs. The importance of the enkai to Japanese can hardly be overstated. They are one of the primary ways the Japanese bond with each other in both formal and informal ways during the proceedings. There is usually a “master of ceremonies” who conducts the activities of the parties, calling on participants to provide entertainment. For the Japanese the enkai are an institutionalized and ritualized way for them to express and nurture their Japaneseness, to shore up their psyche and energy, and strengthen their bonds with each other and their guests. Foreign businesspeople can get a lot of cultural mileage out of sponsoring enkai for their Japanese affiliations, as well as by attending (when invited) those staged by the Japanese side. Dinners (and sometimes lunches) arranged for large tourist groups in resort hotels and inns are typically done enkai style, with the participants wearing yukata robes, sitting on tatami (reed-mat) floors at low tables, and being called upon to perform some kind of entertainment—a situation that regularly puts most visitors on the spot because they have no experience singing or dancing in public. But you cannot get the full flavor of an enkai or fully appreciate its cultural importance if you are not fairly fluent in the Japanese language and do not participate in the activities. Increasing Understanding, Tolerance & Cooperation The world will never know universal peace and goodwill toward all until fundamental cultural differences, particularly religions, are resolved—or at least diminished to the point that they can be settled without resorting to war. Despite all of the ranting and railing that it would cause, I propose that the fastest and most effective means of achieving this goal would be for all non-English speaking people in the world to be required to learn English as a second language. English is already the language of international business, and business on a global basis is the only way to eradicate poverty, provide a decent living standard for the world’s masses, and serve as a substitute for war. This would not mean that people would have to give up their native languages or the facets of their culture that are positive and nurturing. But it could and should mean that the English language culture they absorb would help make it possible for them to think and behave on the same wavelength as the rest of the world. The movement toward English becoming the international language is already well underway but at its present pace it could take fifty to a hundred or more years before it is widespread enough to significantly reduce misunderstandings and disagreements to a manageable level. Promoting the teaching of English on a worldwide basis would be something that the United Nations should be able to do—after it overcomes resistance from its own “nationalism-first” delegates. _______________________________________________ Copyright © 2009 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente. All rights reserved. See Amazon.com for several books by the author that identify and explain the “cultural code words” of the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Mexicans, Navajos and Hopis.
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