Culture & Language

There is a unique tie between culture and language. The languages we speak provide us with the words and concepts to describe the world around us, allowing us to verbalize certain values easily. Anything we as a cultural group value will surely have a known and easily understandable term. The English word “privacy” and the Chinese word “guanxi” both have clear and strong meanings in their respective languages, but are not necessarily found in all other languages. Being a native speaker of our mother tongue brings with it more than just the ability to communicate, it brings with it the ability to understand why someone thinks and acts as they do.

Even within a language, certain terms may only be used by certain groups and this jargon or vernacular can quickly reflect what the group values. If you regularly use the term “return on investment”, this says a great deal about what you value in your role at an organization. Similarly, if you immediately understand the complexities and nuances of the term “sustainable development," then you too belong to a group of people who undoubtedly share a culture and worldview.

Languages also have differing structures that can reinforce and contribute to our worldview and cultural beliefs. Take, for example, languages such as Spanish that quickly and easily differentiate between a “formal” and “informal” relationship with others, depending on which form of the word “you” is used. In learning this language as a child, you are taught that an appropriate way to demonstrate respect to certain other people is in word choice… and because this is part of how you must speak, it becomes part of how you must think.

These differences in language, reflective of our different cultures, are at the core of what makes translation of a text from one language to another often times difficult. Words can have deep meaning, and finding the right word for the right context can be an interesting and formidable challenge.