In order to understand culture and how it affects language and communication, one must understand what language is universally. Chomsky theorized that language is innate (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2005; Santrock, 2009). This idea can be upheld simply by looking at the brain – a normal brain has parts dedicated to language, such as Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, that are hardwired to help with motor development and processing of language. When these areas are destroyed, we lose the ability to understand, relay, process, and perform language, regardless of experience and environment.
Timing, structure, and the stages in which we learn language all seems to be quite similar (Santrock, 2009). We all start out babbling – testing things out – whether it be with our gestures in the form of sign language, in our facial expressions and motions in mimicking others, or in forming sounds with our tongues and jaw. Studies by Kuhl (as cited by Santrock, 2009) have shown that all children, even as early as a few days, can pick up on every phoneme of every language – that when born, we all have the ability to understand and recognize a variety of nuances of blending sounds across cultures and nations. As we grow, we lose this ability simply because we do not use it – the fine distinctions of sounds in certain languages are not practiced and simply are pruned from our brain. However, language is much more complicated than just sounds.
Language is part of communication. For many of us, we learn this communication from our environment and caregivers. We “talk to learn” as Vygotsky explained (as cited in Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2005) and someone responds in kind to reinforce it. For instance, when we point with a finger to something that interested us, joint attention usually occurs (Cavanaugh and Kail, 2007), meaning someone notices us pointing, clarifies what we are seeing, and maybe will point at something else for us to engage in communication even further. If no one is there to teach or respond, these abilities to “learn” language are lessened. Language and the practice of language come from the influence of our environment. The nuances of unknown cultural protocols and other environmental influences can skew these things, however.
Hello, social media.
One area of communication that is incredibly important to all cultures is the art of negotiations. Just perusing facebook can give you a bird’s eye view of how well that can go. But, even when face to face, it can still be awkward when you don’t know the rules of communication in regards to culture.
For instance, Graham (1993, as cited in Smith, 2001) noted the vast differences between American and Japanese buyers and sellers in regards to language, both verbal and body, and negotiations. They found that those of the Japanese culture did not like direct rejection, interruptions, or initiative in a lower status individual. Americans were confused by the head nods and whether that was a positive gesture and were unclear when final negotiations were complete in Japanese transactions (Smith, 2001). Solutions to understanding hierarchies in response to talking out of turn, gestures and body language, and the art of different cultures is incredibly important. Kaplan and Cunninghan (2010) recommend that you know both your fellow communicator as well as yourself. They indicated that understanding how directness and subtlety are used is crucial. Also something as simple as “knowing who is in the room” can keep respect at the center of the conversation (Kaplan & Cunningham, 2010, para. 14).
In the classes I teach and the people I encounter in private practice, I have the priviledge of working with a very diverse population. I learn something new from every student and client I encounter. Admitting that I don’t know something about a student or client and his or her culture is the only way to learn. For instance, my class structure is open discussion and conversations can stall when a reference, gesture, or slang is made or used that one culture or group may understand while another does not. If not addressed, it makes for a very awkward class and can cause a separation in the class body. The best thing to do in that situation is simply ask. The person who is unaware (sometimes me!) learns and understands a nuance of a culture other than his or her own while also empowering the person who made mention of the information to explain it from their viewpoint and feel understood. It is a win-win situation. It empowers everyone involved when we attempt to understand each other in this respect.
Language and understanding is a two way street. Make it a smooth ride.
Cavanaugh, J.C. and Kail, R.V. (2007). Human Development: A Life-Span View (4th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.
Gardiner, H. W., & Kosmitzki, C. (2005). Lives across cultures: Cross-cultural human development (3rd ed., pp. 101–116). Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
Santrock, J. W. (2009). A topical approach to life-span development (custom ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Smith, P.B. (2001). Cross – cultural studies of social influence. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), The handbook of culture and psychology (pp. 361-374). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.