Monday, 30 May 2011

Education: Watch your language!! When a word has different implications in different languages.

Educación: Presta atención en lo que dices!! Cuando una palabra tiene diferentes implicaciones en otros idiomas 

Excited and anxious for starting my new courses on pedagogics, I found an interesting blog on teaching assessment, resources and related, written by Andrea Novicki, at Duke. The entry is named watch your language!!, and makes reference to the importance of having good communication with students, which surprisingly to some, it is not only relevant to high schools teachers, but it is also highly relevant at the college and university level.

Watch you language!!!!.

Novicky summarizes the lessons learned from the talk given by Robert Krulwich in two points:

  • Language: Particularly when introducing a subject, make the subject accessible to people who do not have the specialized vocabulary. 
  • Pace: To give the audience the experience of making a discovery on their own; to use active learning techniques to have students working out answers for themselves.
Novicky pointed out well relevant topics in education (you may have fun checking out some set of banned words she links out). The latter point out the difference between institutions that understand that a primary role of individuals is to propose rather than to wait, and it is a topic that demands an entire entry for its discussion. In this post I will try to talk a bit on the former, which brought into my mind two additional aspects that were interesting to observe during my stay at Tohoku. First, in a multicultural heterogeneous class, it may sound funny but the same word may have different implications for each person. Second, in a multicultural class, cultural differences should be taken into account.

Language: In a heterogeneous class: A word may have a different meaning after being translated.

Let´s begin with the fun part. In Spanish, the world "travel" means commuting, or going a long distance from some point to another using any transportation vehicle, and it can be used regardless the purpose of the activity. In Japanese, there are several verbs used in reference to commuting. One is used when the activity is carried for pleasure; there is another verb used when the activity is carried for business purposes. In addition to the verb "travel", you should be careful with the additional verb "to go", which in Spanish this can be used as in English. However in Japanese, there is one verb is used  simply to say "go"; there is another pair that indicates that you are returning home (perhaps not return from your home country), and another that indicates that you are coming back later. Similar ambiguities were found with my friends coming from 5 continents during my stay at Tohoku (in the picture, guess who comes from which continent), unfortunately I did not take them seriously at the beginning; I was forced to learn about those ambiguities after I told my boss that I was going to my country for a short trip, and without notice he cancelled my contract understanding that I was not planning to come back.

Because of the ambiguity in the use of verbs and phrases, I learned that when discussing a technical topic with your boss or students you should always try to do it using their language (understand it literally and/or figuratively). How does it apply to education? Well, educators should always try to be aware that the individuals in front of him/her have different background, and principally different age (i.e., which sometimes may mean different language).

Should lecturers and managers be required to learn other languages?

From my perspective, learning other languages whose structures diametrically differ from ours can provide powerful tools to understand people with different backgrounds and different cultures. Why? Because language is not only grammar (which may also give a powerful hint on a culture), but also the manners used to communicate an idea, for instance behavior. Thus, the relevance of learning another languages, or even traveling outside your home town, is likely to be important in multicultural communities, and even more important in large multicultural countries such as the US. That experience will provide to educators additional tools to manage and develop heterogeneous groups where patience is likely to be relevant during the mutual adaptation term.

Conclusion: Use the right words, and focus on the topic. Be aware of the cultural differences.

Culture and gender should be taken into account even in cases when the audience is supposedly homogeneous. Research in Cultural Neoscience (or you might be interested in my previous entry) has suggested that cultures can shape the brain, which from my perspective is likely to have high relevancy. Anyone who has advised and/or had a discussion with students and scientists from different continents (hence different backgrounds) may have experienced this at first hand. For example, the straight way that westerns may use when communicating may be pretentious, arrogant or even rude for some nationals; conversely, the "polite" manners of some nationals, may also be misinterpreted by others.

Even though the saying "when in Rome do as the Romans do" applies in most cases, understanding basic existing, or induced to exist, cultural differences is fundamental during the mutual adaptation process. The same applies to the jointed gender-culture parameter.

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