Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 1 of 2)

April 29, 2010

In the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), the fictional English teacher, Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, tells his class of adolescent boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” It’s a notion that I’ve shared with my second language students on many occasions. I tell them that by learning a second language (or a third or a fourth or a fifth), they learn new ways of understanding not only themselves, but the world around us.

The challenges of learning another language are immense. There’s vocabulary to be acquired, grammar to master and verb conjugations to memorize. All of this information and more must be internalized, synthesized and then reproduced spontaneously as interactive speech. It’s an enormous feat. And it’s an enormous feat that millions have undertaken.

But to what end? We like to tell our students that their job prospects are better if they learn other languages. But are they really? I live in an affluent area of Canada, where young men (and women, though far fewer of them), can leave high school early and go north to work on oil rigs or in the towns that support the oil business. They can make cash, and lots of it, quickly. It’s hard work, under intense conditions. Yet thousands of them do it. Try telling them that if they learn a second language their job prospects are going to be better. They’ll scoff, turn around and drive away in a shiny new truck, that’s been fully paid for in cash.

So, the job prospect line doesn’t really fly very well where I live.

Travelling to other countries? There are plenty of tourist areas in the world where the locals have thrown themselves into learning the language of the tourists precisely to make them feel more welcome. People can travel to resorts all over the world and be served by locals who speak their language. In fact, I’ve heard people say, “Why should I learn their language when they’ll learn mine?”

So, the travelling argument seems a bit hollow, too.

What’s the real reason we believe so strongly that learning another language is important? It’s what that fictional character, Keating said, “because words and ideas can change the world.” When we commit ourselves to learning another language, we challenge ourselves to dig deep into ourselves to tap into our own power to communicate with others, to reach out, to connect.

When we take the plunge and test our communicative skills in another language, we reach inside and overcome our fears of making mistakes, fear of being rejected by others, fear of not being good enough, fear of not fitting in. We try anyway. We connect, however imperfectly, and that leads to wanting to understand more, learn more and discover more.

As we learn other languages we also learn about other cultures, other people, other faiths, other ways of living and being and looking at the world. We find our own sense of who we are profoundly enriched and deepened in ways we could not have otherwise imagined.

It’s hard to explain this to someone who doesn’t believe there’s any value in learning other languages. There are those who will never be convinced. Rather than trying to implore them with hollow arguments that are hard to back up, instead, we can offer concrete examples of individuals who changed the world by learning other languages. Here are some examples:

Albert Einstein. He was born in Switzerland and spoke German as his first language. (Anecdotally, I am told that he did not speak at all until he was five years old.) He learned English as a Second Language.

Nelson Mandela. His first language was Xhosa, an African dialect. He learned English as a Second Language.

Mohandas Gandhi. His first language was Gujarati. He went on to learn 10 additional languages.

Rigoberta Menchu. Her first language was Quechua, an indigenous language of her native Guatemala. As I understand it, she learned Spanish in order to give her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which she was awarded in 1992.

Critics would argue that all of these public figures learned a language of the dominant population and would go on to discuss issues of power and oppression. My aim here is not to enter into such a discussion, but merely to point out that the work that these individuals did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages.

That is a bold statement and I stand behind it. Let me repeat it: the work these influential people did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages. Why? Because learning other languages gave them opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations, connect with others and do the work that they were so deeply passionate about a larger scale. They moved beyond the parochial into the global. They transcended personal, political, scientific and historical boundaries. With their words and ideas they changed the world.

When we learn other languages, we change who we are. We grow to understand and appreciate the world around us in new and meaningful ways. As we change, so the world changes. That’s the real reason we believe in the power of learning other languages. Because when we do, we learn to reach out to others, connect deeply and express our passion for life and our life’s work in profoundly transformative ways.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


World class business: The basics of intercultural awareness

April 10, 2010

Being culturally aware is like being diplomatic. For some people it seems to come naturally. Others blindly hurtle forward, unaware that their ignorance is offensive to others. In business, being sensitive to other cultures can win you contracts and life-long relationships on which you can build your business – and keep it.

But what exactly is this abstract awareness? Basically, intercultural awareness is knowing why people from different backgrounds act the way they do. Once that we understand that, we can use that information to have better relationships with  them.  This awareness will help you predict how people who come from different backgrounds will act, speak, think, make decisions and perceive the world.

It is important to note that this does not mean endorsing stereotypes or pigeonholing people into categories. It is about being open-minded and willing to understand others for who they are. For example, you may learn that while dining with a Chinese colleague, it is not customary to discuss business. One normally talks about the meal itself and pays compliments to the person who has prepared it. Somewhere, there is probably a Chinese business person who will talk about business incessantly during a meal. The important thing to remember is that you are dealing with an individual and that human interaction is fluid and dynamic. The more flexible and aware you are about what to expect, the better your cross-cultural interactions will be.

If people from other cultures want to do business with us and interact with us, why don’t they learn our customs?  Often they do. But that is only half of the battle. If you make the effort to learn about your counterpart, you will both be making the effort to understand each other, doubling your effort and chances for success.

While your counterpart may act like you and sound like you, he or she isn’t. That person may think in a different language, process information in a different way and make decisions differently than you do. If you understand how culture may affect this person’s character, you may give yourself an edge in business and in communications. That’s an edge that your competitor may not have.

Cross cultural awareness is one of those abstract, “soft skills”. It takes time to cultivate. It is an evolutionary process that continues throughout our lives, if we chose to open ourselves to it. There are a number of ways to gain this awareness, such as through direct contact with the culture or through popular media.

Everyday the media bombards us with images from around the world. Although sometimes we can learn interesting material from the media, it is good to be aware of sensationalism and media bias. It is important to remain open-minded and non-judgmental.

People are usually delighted to about the customs and culture of their homeland. Many of us are embarrassed to ask questions because we fear that we will be judged as ignorant. My experience has been that non-judgmental questions that are motivated by a sincere interest to learn are always answered with enthusiasm.

If you know that you are going to be dealing with someone from another culture it pays to do your homework. The internet and general interest reading material may be helpful. Some things that may be helpful to know before dealing with someone from another culture include such things as forms of address and greeting. Knowing what to call a person and how to greet people properly can win you friends and business. Not doing so, or making a blundered attempt, may be remembered – in a negative way – for a long time. When in doubt, ask how your counterpart would like to be addressed. If nothing else, this shows respect on your part.

Another important issue is table manners.  This is a huge topic, but suffice to say that if you will be dining with clients or prospects from another culture, it is worthwhile to find out what their customs are. Take the time to learn about this before you sit down at the table.

By making the attempt to become culturally aware you will expand your mind as you learn more about the world around you, give yourself an edge in business and negotiations, and enjoy friendships with people from diverse backgrounds. When you become culturally aware, you gain the riches of the whole world. Isn’t it worth it?

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


3 Tips for dealing with non-English speakers on the phone

February 5, 2010

Anyone who answers or makes calls is going to encounter someone whose first language isn’t the same as their own. Providing this person speaks enough of the language to understand you, there are three key tactics you can use to set yourself apart from other, less compassionate and understanding people, when it comes to dealing with callers whose first language differs from yours.

Smile. The person on the other end of the phone can “hear” your smile and will respond to your positive energy. About 70% of our communication is non-verbal, so a smile conveys a lot, even if the other person can’t see it. But did you know that the smile is the only universal facial expression? All others can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the culture. But a sincere smile will always transcend words and cultural difference.

Be extra patient. Imagine you are the person on the other end of the phone. You would appreciate it if the native speaker did not jump in while you were still talking, finish your sentences for you or skip to the next point without letting you finish. If you allow a non-native speaker to finish saying what they have to say, listen intently and be patient, you will win respect and trust.

Speak slower, not louder. People whose first language isn’t English may need more time to process the language, but their hearing is probably just as good as yours. If you slow down the pace of your speech and leave longer pauses in between sentences, you will allow the other person time to absorb everything that you are saying. Don’t exaggerate your pauses or tone, but rather think of speaking slowly, clearly and cheerfully. If you do, the person on the other end will know you are trying to be helpful, not patronizing.

(This article is adapted from one published Sept. 8, 2003 in a weekly newsletter for language program marketers and managers on a Yahoo group.)

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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