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 languages have on the values, attitudes and behavior of mono-lingual 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 built into our 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 mindset of the people.
This results in people talking at or past each other instead of to each other—and generally neither side fully understands why they are seldom if ever in perfect agreement …why they cannot get along.
During some 15 years in Asia from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s—as a member of an intelligence agency, student, trade journalist, editor and consultant—I learned that the mindsets of the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese were bound up in key words in their languages…and that these key words were gateways to their cultures.
As a result of this discovery I went on to write a series of pioneer books on the attitudes, values and behavior of the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese in all of their business and social relationships. The first book in this series, Japanese Etiquette & Ethics in Business, was published in 1959 and is still in print at McGraw-Hill. I then did similar books on Korea, China and Mexico, and then got down to the nitty-gritty with a series of “cultural code word” books on the same countries.
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.
I repeat, to fully understand and know a people you must be intimately familiar with the key words in their native languages 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.
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 can make them smarter and give them a much broader, innate understanding of other people.
Mainstream Americans in particular have traditionally been insensitive to the languages and cultures of other countries. Broadly speaking this failing, which is certainly not limited to Americans, is a result of prejudices built into the different cultures and manifested in culturally pregnant terms in the languages concerned.
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 in Japan and China. 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.
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 would mean that the logical, rational cultural elements that are bound up in English would help make it possible for them to think and behave on the same wavelength.
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 delegates. And it would be a lot less destructive, wasteful and costly than war.
Copyright © 2010 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente. All rights reserved.