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Why we need ‘world’ knowledge, not just ‘word’ knowledge.

I went to a conference in Melbourne in 2014 and there were a fair few presentations that had me kicking back and checking my emails (sorry, but if you’re going to read your slides, save us all some time and just send them to me!).

There was this one presentation though, that totally captivated me.

His name is Jurge, he’s a Professor from Germany, and he spoke such sense it had us all in stitches. He was talking all about intercultural communication. Sounds pretty dry right?
Most people assume that when you learn a language, you inherently know how to communicate with other people who speak that language. That when people learn YOUR language, they automatically learn the cultural norms and somehow magically understand how and why things are done the way they’re done in your culture.

Quite simply, that is not correct.

Anyone working with people who aren’t from their own localised ‘culture’ need to understand two things.

One, you don’t know what you don’t know until you realise you don’t know it.

Two, just because you speak the language, doesn’t mean you understand how and when to use it appropriately.

 

Take this, for example; a demonstration of my uncanny ability to make awesome first impressions.

 

I was learning Japanese in Japan and getting to know all the new clients that I worked with on a weekly basis. First week there I had a welcoming dinner and did two things that I would do every other day in Australia, but in Japan? Had me taken for a rude be-atch straight up.

 

One, I yelled out ‘chin-chin!’ when we initally cheersed my arrival.

 

Second of all, I refilled everyone’s drinks from the beer bottle before filling my own.

Now. Those of you who don’t have an intimate knowledge of Japanese culture. All good right? I’m the perfect guest. Filling up people’s glasses, cheersing with my peers. Ya?

Wrong.

Pouring your own drink in Japan indicates that everyone else at the table is extremely rude not to have noticed that you have an empty glass. So essentially, pouring yourself a drink is saying ‘well thank you very much you bunch of selfish pricks’.

Nice.
Secondly, chin-chin is the word for the male appendage.
Well hello, welcome to Japan. I’m so good at first impressions I really should go into show business. Not.
Ya.
Think the non-native English speakers you work with are ‘rude’? Think again. Learning how to communicate in another culture is a minefield – you never know what you’re doing wrong until someone points out to you what you’re doing in THEIR culture and what it means.

You’re never safe.

Neither are the poor b*stards who are trying to learn your ‘language’, or trying to fit in with their new ‘culture’ in your city, workplace or community. Yep, culture doesn’t necessarily refer to a religion or a country, and can refer to any new environment someone finds themselves in (just think about all the ‘norms’ you have to work out when you start at a new school or college – all the written, but also UNWRITTEN rules that you only find out about when you do something ‘wrong’); so go easy on someone new to your environment.

It’s often not only the lingo they’re trying to get their heads around!

 

Fancy a laugh? Here’s another example of why knowing the language means sweet nothing if you don’t understand the culture you’re using it within. It contains an eel, a bunch of business men, and a very red face. Intrigued? Watch below…

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5 thoughts on “Why we need ‘world’ knowledge, not just ‘word’ knowledge.”

  1. Filling up glasses would make you the perfect host and lady in Abemama not so much in the other islands. In Abemama using expressions for parts of the body are considered as every day language and they specialize on it and they love it so might I say u are an Abemama lady Nei Maria

    • Ebwa, and just like the woman in the bar who congratulated me on the size of my backside, I’m clearly meant to be in Kiribati!

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