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Language In Cross-Cultural Understanding









In several parts of Africa, royal families are involved in agriculture and sleep at "the palace" which is a complex of detached, usually one-room structures commonly made of daga (adobe). The buildings have a variety of purposes and come in a variety of shapes and sizes: some are used for sleeping (bedrooms), some for congregating (living rooms), some for cooking (kitchens) and others for storage (pantries or granaries.) Africans, speaking their indigenous languages would not call any of these "huts".


A hut, as defined by Webster, is: 1. A crudely built dwelling or shelter. 2. A temporary structure for sheltering troops.
If you return from traveling and tell your friends, 1) "I slept in a hut", or 2) "I slept in a palace", your friends will have a very different image about your experience. You will influence, through your selection of words, how your friends will view your experience, and through extension, the lives of the people you met and their quality of life.
So if you slept with the royal family, did you sleep in a hut or a palace? Your choice of words can show the bias in how you view the world.
The words and ideas that Westerners typically associates with Africa and other non-western cultures are: "Third World" "natives" who live in "huts" and practice "witch craft." Unfortunately most of the messages we have received since childhood about our fellow non-western man and woman grossly simplify their lives and denigrates their state of being. It is a lexicon that has been generated, built and spread by ethnocentric western anthropologists, missionaries, educators and Hollywood.
The fact that non-Westerners also, when speaking our English and French, use terms like "natives," "huts," and "witch craft" doesn't validate the accuracy of the vocabulary. One of the lasting legacy of a century of foreign domination and oppression is language. Here the consequence of language structuring thinking is perhaps even more destructive and tragic because it moves from opinion to identity. To escape the pejorative labels and humiliation that language has brought to them and to boost self-esteem, many people born into non-western cultures have felt compelled to "educate" and "westernize" and to adopt the western devaluation of their "uneducated" countrymen and women - ironically, some of whom may speak five or more different languages, and are extraordinary medical botanists, theologians or agronomists in their home environments.
Though it is expedient, a lack of knowledge or a limited vocabulary is not justification for debasing and misrepresenting something. There is an axiom, "It is better to sit quietly and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it beyond all doubt." Until we can learn accurately, find some new words and be descriptive about the broader world it is better to continue to research and explore, than expostulate. So how can we be more descriptive with language.
First, you might have to erase from your minds the vocabulary you use for non- western cultures and the values they embody. Starting with a clean slate, we can learn a vocabulary that imparts a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. Second, it is important to respect other people's terms of self-identification. Ask, learn, remember and use the descriptions that they prefer.
The following are some vocabulary tips. Though not an exhaustive list, it should help you be more sensitive, objective and accurate in your observations of non-western cultures.
World Order
"Third World", though widely used, is a misleading and vague phase. It is used so generally that it is difficult to determine what's being described. It implies a hierarchy. But who defined the order and on what basis was it established? Is the hierarchy really there? Does "Third World" refer to economics health, political sophistication, geographical area, social structure, arts and cultural complexity, national achievement, military might, or ethical and moral values?
On some scales of "development" a country with lower and more efficient energy consumption might rank ahead of a wasteful nonproductive energy guzzling nation. If we are discussing cultural character any ranking risks being subjective and ethnocentric. Ranking the ethics and morals of other societies is always difficult especially when they are sophisticated and complex, and you don't understand them.
In talks about economics you can speak of "lower average per capital income countries." Politically the reference may be to "newly- independent countries." Geographically your subject may be "distant lands" or name the continent or country. Culturally, the reference is probably to societies that are "non-western", as oppose to a "third world culture."
Part of the lesson of being a sensitive student or traveler is that there is one (multicultural) world and each member has his/her own mix of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual assets to contribute. Each deserves respect. None is second class. Though generally discounted, countries of "Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean and South America" produce some of the world's best athletes, not second or third place competitors. They have been responsible for a variety of scientific discoveries that have changed civilization. By those who know, their cultures, artisans, philosophers and leaders are renown.
I also hesitate at the phrase "less developed." 1) The model for "development" is rooted in a paradigm that assumes human welfare is merely the sum of gross economic values. 2) The term implies that more filling of wetlands, cutting of forests, paving of valleys, polluting of water, poisoning of land, dirtying of air and consumption of resources -- e.g. "development" -- is better. And, 3) There is a cultural evaluation that a society that does employ as much new technology is a lesser culture. Our linking of development and culture is often ethnocentric and tends to misrepresents and undervalues the sophistication of the culture, values, ethics, morals and social institutions of other civilizations. To use the verb "developing" works better but can be vague.
Hopefully we are all trying to improve the condition for life on the planet. Before we can make a useful measure of "development" we need to establish a new paradigm which is habitat-centered and sustainable. With these standards we may find that countries with large areas of urban blight, social dislocation and a toxic environments are further from the goal of "development" than a country with a sustainable agrarian economy and a tight-knit social fabric. Under this paradigm the former is "less developed."
Ethnic Identity
As a noun, associated with non-western cultures, "native" is generally used to refer to an anonymous person. Whether it is meant or not there is an underlying tone of primitive and inferior life-style. Foremost, the people of the continent have identities, pride and dignity! They have roots in their continent, their modern nations, their racial background and their ethnic groups.


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