Separated by a Common Language

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29 NAS).

English

I travel and speak internationally, sometimes with an interpreter, many times in English. In an international setting in a country where English is not the first language, many attending my conferences know English as an additional language.  Even if English is the national language of the foreign country where I am speaking, the English spoken in that nation has its own cultural identity.

Traveling to nations where English is spoken supposedly relieves the pressure of having to learn another language.  I have become aware, however, of communication difficulties among English speakers in different cultures. If you do travel, you might incur the same issues.  Even in you live in an English speaking country, you will encounter others who have learned English as an additional language.  Below I have shared a few tips I have learned in my travels.

Although English is so widespread, communication problems do exist between English speakers of different nations. Often what one intends to communicate is lost in the language itself. What can be done about it?

Be aware of the possibility of misunderstanding. Watch the person you are speaking with closely for body language that communicates he did not fully understand what you had to say.  When that happens, rephrase your comment.

Do not use idioms. Although a dictionary exists which tries to explain idioms used in American, British and Australian English, avoid idioms altogether.

Stay away from jokes. It is a rare joke that is understood by all cultures.  Humor can be effectively used without telling a joke.

Never insult your listener.  Resist the temptation to say something like, “I just used simple English.”  If you had really used simple English, you probably would not have been misunderstood.  So, a good rule is to simplify, simplify, simplify.

Take special care if you are teaching or speaking to a group. Often your attendees are a mixture of native English speakers as well as those who have learned English as an additional language. If you have been sensitive in preparing your speech, everyone should be able to benefit from what you have to say. You don’t want anyone to spend time trying to figure out what you meant by a certain comment at the beginning of your speech, thus ensuring that the rest of the speech was a loss.

Keep cultural references to a minimum. It can be offensive to others when all of your examples are from your own culture. Personal examples can be effective, however, such as “As a father, I have found that my children watch my every move.  This makes me think twice about the kind of leader I am at home and in the business world.”  Your example can then be very specific.

Even personal examples, however, have their limitations. For instance, if you are speaking to a group in a poor, depressed country, making references about the difficulties of finding what you want while you are shopping not only does not make sense to your audience, it points out the differences between your cultures.  They may not have the ability to buy basic things, much less shop around for “just the right thing.”

Enjoy the experience. People of different cultures can learn much from each other.  Being able to speak the same language is a huge plus, but consideration and humility should always be present. If you are truly interested in communicating, your listener will know it and you will be encouraged to return.

Christianity

Just as one would expect that he would be understood when speaking English with another native English speaker, we often make the mistake that everyone who claims to be a Christian will also understand the words that we use in describing our faith.  That is not always true.

Some denominations have attached certain meanings to common words used in the Christian community.  Sometimes this can lead to not only a lack of communication, but a vital difference in doctrine as well.  If you are in doubt about whether you and the person you are speaking with are in agreement, clarify.  Some commonly misunderstood words are:

  • Christian.  A true Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ.  Some people equate the title with cultural Christianity, i.e. living in a “Christian” nation, being part of a “Christian” family, being a member of a “Christian” church.
  • Baptism.  Baptism is a testimony of a person who has trusted Christ as his Savior and Lord. It is not essential to salvation; however, some denominations teach that it is.
  • Spiritual gifts.  Every believer has been given at least one spiritual gift to use for the building up of the body of Christ.  There are some denominations, however, that teach that some of the gifts are evidence of salvation and present in every believer.

Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one (Colossians 4:5-6).

© Stephanie B. Blake

June 2011

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