Latvia

On intercultural communication, learning the language and globalisation.

As Anthony J. Liddicoat has said in his paper “Teaching Languages for Intercultural Communication” (2005):

“Learning a foreign language is more than a simple task of assembling lexical items in grammatically accurate sentences. It involves fundamentally learning to communicate with others in that language and such communication involves an engagement with culture.”

So I decided it is time for this kind of post.

As stated by Gupta and Ferguson, changes in political and economic systems and migration of people has led to the situation where we have to re-evaluate the ways of exploring the cultures and maybe even redefine the concept of culture as a discrete phenomenon (1992). Culture is not a simple concept, therefore in my mind, changing it would mean changing the small components constructing it. The work of Gupta and Ferguson overall raises the wide issue of ‘place and space’: location, displacement, community and identity; it deals with change in Anthropology and it’s concepts due to the development of society, science, economy, politics etc. It talks about culture and cultural differences within the context of the modern globalized world. How big a part of a culture depends on where we come from? Does the certain culture only exists within a certain society, or it travels and changes together with people; or does a politically geographical distinction dictates the way of perceiving the culture as a part of certain people and territory?

Migration, nomads, foreign studies or work – are you supposed to have more than one culture or maybe none of them the same time? And where do we draw a line between cultures? Are there even several cultures or there is just one thing – a culture? Multiculturalism is a clear example of non-isolated cultures, of a movement as a part of human nature and culture, plurality concept (even though dividing cultures into subcultures seems to be an attempt of a distinct cultural view of world). National identity vs. Ethnic (cultural) identity: As J.Rotschild (1999) states, even though most countries are multi-ethnic; ethno-national self-determination is critical on a mental level. Dominant culture + ‘the others’ (concept of the otherness), plus mixture of cultures based on the power of dominant culture; (In my mind I would link this idea to A.D. Smith (1997) -> ethnic groups tend to form either by union or disunion of certain units -> Assimilation vs. Proliferation).

As a foreigner living in the United Kingdom, I can definitely say that it has not been easy for me to learn the “language”. And no, not in a grammatical sense of the word. Being here and studying anthropology I felt lost for at least the first month or so. I felt lost mainly because both – the environment and the study area – were completely new. I had to EXPLORE people through anthropological studies without having any idea how these people are different, are they different at all and what are their customs and mentality. With this we come back to the unloved idea of ‘the others’. During our classes we talked about ‘the others’ mostly when talking about groups of people that are considered to be not as developed technology-wise. But it isn’t as easy as that, is it?

When I told my supervisor I will carry out my research right here in the UK and, even more complicated, on people of my own age group and nationality, he called me crazy and offered me to go to the easy way. He offered me to write on the ancient pagan rituals and use of them nowadays in Latvia. For him, I was ‘the other’ from the place somewhere else which made this theme fascinating. For me the UK was “the other place” and I wanted to explore what I thought would help me to fit in. Basically, by looking for the reasons in other people like me I set myself straight. In time, I obviously made lots of friends who are British, learned the ideas, picked up some accents, social customs and even fell for a guy. I didn’t feel like ‘the other’ anymore, nor do I now. However, that had changed me – I feel more as ‘the other’ back home.

Language for people is like a marker of identity. Our language implies certain things about us and using a language means constructing our social identity. Language allows you to express yourself. In my opinion, learning the language is somehow showing respect for the other person and in addition to that, you enrich your world by engaging with another culture and more importantly learning to understand it.

Recently I had an interesting conversation in my friends car on what I value the most about learning foreign languages. I replied that in my opinion it makes you more tolerant as you learn a part of the identity through the language, you participate in a cultural exchange without even knowing it. Every language is a way to explore and understand. And exploring a second language is the most obvious way of intercultural communication. It is important to keep in mind that when someone communicates in their second language they automatically encode the ideas in language which is located within a certain cultural context. Hence, language learners have to engage with culture as they communicate which is not always the easiest of tasks.

This leads to exactly what S. Tambiah had said in his work “Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality” – he points out four main themes: rationality, relativity, translation and comparability and commensurability. All these points are tools to communicate, to understand “us” and “them” by explaining the information we gather in terms of our own understanding (S. Tambiah: 1990). In my opinion, it raises the question of “being lost in translation” or in other words misinterpretation. By interpreting cultures on our own knowledge basis, can we be objective or rational? Are any of the cultures better than the other? Even though Tambiah’s work has been written just over 20 years ago, a lot has changed since then. Global connections and information systems have been upgraded every day and cultures mix due to networking and social and economic organisations collaborating globally hence cross-culturally. Cross-cultural communication is happening not only in professional but also personal levels – people are migrating, i.e. labour migrants, integrate in the “local” society and become a part of it, but still with a different background, creating a new kind of cultural identity. However, the diversity of cultures has not been eliminated, as long as we acknowledge that we are individuals, there is a diversity in thoughts, traditions etc.

Models of intercultural communication have greatly changed accordingly, and one of the main communication changing aspects is globalisation. If we look back for almost forty years, E. Leach wrote: “Our internal perception of the world around us is greatly influences by the verbal categories which we use to describe it (…) we also use language to tie the components together again, to put things and persons in relationship to one another” (E. Leach: 1976, p.33). If we look at the ideas ten years later from that point on, late 80s and start of the 90s – anthropology has shifted from a clear idea of distinction between cultures who communicate to a much more open debate between relativists and rationalists. Ten more years later, Norman Long argues that globalisation is not uniformity but is to be considered diversity, since it allows more individual and self-organized system to operate and people become less united (N. Long: 2000, p.185). This leads to discussion on heterogeneity of society even modern and high-tech communication systems and media development should allow more easy communication. At some point it does. It is definitely much easier to find information on a certain project or interest, transfer information, check the facts etc. But this also allows the information to be more manipulated, used by the third parties or to be false.

And to conclude, it is always about understanding each other not about learning dry facts.

Further readings:

1. Hannerz, U. Mediations in the global ecumene in G. Palsson (ed.) Beyond Boundaries. Understanding, Translation and Anthropological Discourse, Princeton Academic Press, 1993.
2. Leach, E. Culture and Communication: the logic by which symbols are connected. An introduction to the use of structuralist analysis in social anthropology, Cambridge University Press, 1976.
3. Palsson, G. Introduction: Beyond Boundaries in G. Palsson (ed.) Beyond Boundaries. Understanding, Translation and Anthropological Discourse, Princeton Academic Press, 1993.
4. Tambiah, S., Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality, Cambrige University Press, 1990.
5. Liddicoat, A.J. and A. Sacrino (2013) Intercultural Language Teaching and Learning Wiley and Sons, New York.
6. Crozet, C., & Liddicoat, A.J. (2000) Teaching culture as an integrated part of language: Implications for the aims, approaches and pedagogies of language teaching. A.J. Liddicoat & Crozet, C. (Eds.), Teaching Languages, Teaching Cultures. Melbourne: Language Australia.
7. Gupta A., Ferguson J., Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference,
Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1, (Feb., 1992), Wiley, URL 

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