Once, when I was in kindergarten, I got on an older relative’s nerves, and she told me to stop “pushing buttons.” Later, she paused, asking me if I even knew what “pushing buttons” meant. I responded, “No, because you say I’m pushing buttons, but I don’t see any buttons!”

This endearing childhood story actually demonstrates a very real and all too common problem in our society: we often fail at communicating effectively. On an interpersonal level, this failure to communicate can lead to unnecessary arguments, hurt feelings, mistrust and, eventually, a complete breakdown in the relationship.

On a broader scale, the processes of globalization — interconnected markets, mass immigration and refugeeism, not to mention worldwide social networks — have exacerbated these problems to a great degree. My relative would have communicated more effectively with me if she had taken the time to consider my linguistic context — if she had “spoken my language.” Similarly, the best way to address global communications concerns is through cross-cultural education and world language acquisition. We need to be able to see and understand issues from the cultural and linguistic perspectives of others while rectifying those times when our attempts at communication have failed.

Photo: University of Hawai’i at Manoa

Alina Vashurina’s 2017 Forbes article explores this issue within the context of a multinational corporation. She notes that expressions like, ‘I have no idea what you mean’ or ‘I don’t know why he reacted like that,’ are heard frequently among employees from different countries. My mom, an attorney for a global company, has humorously noted that Americans often react negatively when a French co-worker’s request (demander, which means, “to ask for” in French) is mistranslated as a demand. Moreover, we often forget how idioms like “pushing buttons” can only be understood within a cultural context. Vashurina advises international coworkers to simplify their messages and to meet face-to-face, but often, the problem runs deeper. The only real solution to cross-cultural communication failure is to learn enough about the language and culture of others to make real communication possible.

Many communication problems stem from language and cultural barriers; this is a particular problem for Americans who frequently expect others to understand English, which has become the lingua franca of our time. Yet, American journalists cannot report accurately on Middle East issues, for example, when they do not understand the languages of their primary sources. I also saw how easy it was for Americans to label Ukrainians as “blunt” simply because the Ukrainians were not fluent in English and the Americans made no efforts to understand Ukrainian or Russian. The problem expands far past faulty reporting or seeing others as rude, however. So many of the world’s problems could be solved through mutual understanding and cooperation, but a failure to communicate properly foreshadows a failure to cooperate fully.

Some argue that language and culture cannot be the answers to these problems because the world’s more than 7000 spoken languages makes the task impossible, but they are missing the point. The goal of language and culture study is not to be able to communicate with everyone, but to develop cultural understanding and linguistic ability. Unfortunately, world language programs are underfunded, and we are failing to teach children the importance of learning languages or understanding world cultures. Amelia Friedman reported in 2015 that only “7 percent of college students” were enrolled in a foreign language and less than “1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom.” Instead, we seem to be isolating ourselves more by embracing nativism at the very moment we should be focusing outward. If we truly want to address the global economic and political challenges we face today, we must address them at the level of cross-cultural communication.

Photo: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Inc. 

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