Language & Culture
 
Are language and culture separate? If you know the language well, do you really need to know the culture as well? Can you know a culture well if you do not know the language? I encourage people traveling abroad on short missionary exposures to learn at least some of the local language even hello, goodbye and thank you are appreciated by the local people.
 
Some agencies consider neither language nor culture as necessary. One family arrived at the airport in an Eastern European country and was taken immediately to a conference to present a talk to nationals about family values. In this case that meant the American ideal of family values, as if American and godly were synonymous.  In Liberia I heard one American say, “When they (the Liberians) become more mature they will be more punctual.” In other words, a Type A Personality is best.
 
After I gave a seminar on ways of eliminating cultural static so the message can be heard and understood, an older American said that the Holy Spirit can fill in the gaps of our inexperience and lack of knowledge. I have not seen that happen.
I was traveling with an American in Morocco on our way to a meeting. He was fluent in Arabic and I knew just survival Arabic. He wanted to go into a rug store to check out Berber rugs. After looking, there was nothing that interested him so he told the shop owner he didn’t want to buy anything. The shop owner kept trying to sell him something and paid no attention to what my friend said. After a while my friend got angry and said no, for the eighth time, and stormed out of the shop.
 
All this took place in Arabic so language was not an issue, however there is a cultural way of saying no. You can say no over and over but as long as you maintain eye contact you don’t really mean it.  My American friend had lived in Morocco for a few years, spoke good Arabic but did not have a good grasp of the culture.
 
You can still know the language, grammatically, however, and still not understand what is going on. In Egypt I interviewed two women who had learned Arabic in different ways. One went to a formal language school: lessons, homework and drills; the other learned her language informally using language acquisition: making her own lessons/short conversations to use in the market place, tea shops, parks, anywhere where she could talk to people in a safe way. As time went on she expanded her vocabulary but always for real use on the street.
 
The one who took formal Arabic could read a newspaper and listen to the news; the other one understood and laughed at the jokes. I don’t think one approach is better than the other but, ideally, some of both: a few weeks of formal learning then even more time on the street using language acquisition.
 
One of my former students went from Morocco to Jordan for more Arabic study. The course was a traditional language program with lots of homework. During his time in Morocco I told all the students that a Moroccan social gathering, like a birthday party, was more important than homework. So if there was a conflict, go to the party. In Jordan he went to class but did not do much of the homework. Instead he spent a lot of time drinking tea with the locals and playing soccer. At the end of the program he spoke better Arabic and more fluently than the rest of his class, and he liked Arabs which could not be said for some of his classmates.
 
Language and culture go together. The more a person interacts with the local people, on their terms, the more aware he/she will be of the culture. Better yet, the person focuses on specific parts of the culture: eye contact, touching, eating manners, communication.
 
You can know the language but still not know how it best goes together. For example, language and culture merge when it comes to storytelling. In many cultures, stories do not just entertain, they teach. In Arabic, Fateja told me about a tourist who stopped a Moroccan man from abusing a donkey. Even though she saw the event she structured it like a story with a moral. She even started it with one “day” (similar to our English beginning, “once upon a time”). When she finished she added a moral, a change in tense when the moral is introduced: You should be kind to animals because Allah created them too.
If an American gives a talk on what is a good man he will give a short introduction and then a list of the qualities, maybe with an illustration.
 
When I asked a young man in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to tell me what is a good man (translated from Amharic) this is what he said,
 
“Before saying a man is good we first have to look at his work, character and condition.
 
A good man helps his kin. He helps the poor. He doesn't take from those who have nothing. He remembers the poor. He doesn't know bad and evil. He is religious. But a bad man only loves himself. A bad man doesn't think of others. He is cruel, doesn't do good and is not generous.
 
God loves a good man. That man is praised by others. He is blessed. When he dies he will inherit heaven. But men do not love a bad man. He isn't blessed. He is cursed. He will not inherit heaven. All he does is Satan's work. Therefore he will not have a long life.
 
There was a rich man who lived in Asmara. His name was Nebiat. This man was very generous and kind. He showed this by gathering poor boys and girls and from their childhood teaching and raising them. There were ten children in all, three girls but the rest were boys.
 
Until his wealth was gone Mr. Nebiat went to church and gave money, alms, to the poor. Afterwards, because he helped those children and they were well learned they got work.
 
But after teaching them his money was gone and he became old. But afterwards those children he had taught took turns caring for him and caused him to live until he died.
 
After this, when he died, the people of Asmara stopped work for a day and buried that man.”
 
Notice in this story that good and evil are contrasted: good, evil, good, evil, then a true story and a moral (the people of Asmara honored him).
 
Even if you speak in English to non-native speakers of English, if you want to touch both the mind and the emotions of a people then you must adapt your teaching style. But first you need to find out what that style is . . .
 
    
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