The (Hidden) Potential of being a Polyglot

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart
— Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was no expert in linguo-culturology, nor did he spend much time researching the implications of psycho-linguistics. Yet, his quote perfectly summarises what effective communication is. He really did know how to talk to people, after all.

Let’s be honest: once you step foot into the international sphere, it is very easy to fall victim of the english as a lingua franca (ELF) system. You become so used to it, you stop thinking about other languages as carriers of knowledge and beliefs. You stop thinking about them as tools that convey identity-specific cultural values and traditions. But, they are! Acknowledging and embracing such differences can really make you stand out from the rest, and ensure you have a common ground. Ensure that the way you interact and communicate with others truly make them feel at ease. That is all you need to start a conversation.

Language is a dialogical process. It is something that always happens between two parties. Whenever interacting with the “other”, our attitude is shaped by conventionally agreed arrangements, and the extent to which we are able to adapt and react is subconsciously conditioned by our own cultural backgrounds and our understanding of the “other.” As the degree to which languages differ can be quite high, the process is not always straightforward. Translating and interpreting different messages and signals - even when conveyed through ELF - can be daunting and confusing. In a way, linguistics are much intertwined with habits and behaviours that we are bound to fail to recognise their symbolic construction. Is it because we only see the outcome? Or is it because we never really “see” it?

Paralinguistic cues are very often charged with so many different layers of significance that ignoring the cultural foundations of said elements cannot, but lead to unforgivable miscommunications or mistakes.  How do we go around it, then?

Learning different languages is one great step forward. It really is a true investment. Studies have shown that multilingualism not only allows us to see the world differently, but offers us a different perspective - even multiples ones. It gives us the chance to question our own beliefs and practices. It is a cognitive asset with unlimited potential.

A different language is a different vision of life
— Federico Fellini

It all relates back to the idea that every language brings with it a set of extra-linguistic elements that, indirectly, shape who we are and the way we see society. Through a language, we are able to express our emotions and opinions; we are able to transfer and receive information. However, the way we do so greatly changes based on the language we are using. Our body language is affected by the structural choice and so can our personality. Sure, the level of proficiency in a certain idiom or the tone and speed used can also have a significant impact in real life interactions, but what is really worth understanding here is the advantage of knowing more than one language and the impact it has within international settings.

As cultural differences can present themselves as obstacles or barriers in intercultural communication - and, even more, during negotiations - not do only mutual understanding and respect need to be established prior to any interaction, but factors such as emotional expressiveness, communication styles and cultural contexts all need to be carefully considered when looking at the construction and deconstruction of messages. This can only be done if you have a certain understanding of your counterpart’s language (plus her/his cultural background), or at least a propensity towards being open-minded and cautious about your communicative adequacy in different foreign contexts.

The danger of finding yourself lost in translation is always great, and there is no set strategy to prevent that from happening, especially when attempting to deconstruct complex messages using ELF among, for example, fellow EFL (English as a Foreign Language) users with different proficiency levels. However, the more languages you know, the easier it should be. The way you assimilate knowledge, and gradually make culturally specific symbols determines your ability to effectively communicate and create a deeper connection with your counterpart. It has been proven on numerous occasions to not only indirectly have economic benefits, but also be a very powerful starting point for reaching international agreements and peacebuilding.

Overall, learning a new language stimulates both your curiosity and cognitive abilities in a variety of incredibly useful ways. Understanding the cultural aspects behind colloquialisms and gestures is a skill that can be applied and tested in multiple contexts. Even if the learning and assimilation is tough and does require commitment and hard work, it pays off. Sometimes, it pays off when you never even expect it. It is a process that allows us to better understand and appreciate differences and similarities among civilisations and people. It essentially allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and eliminate the pre-existing boundaries. It allows you to create an open dialogue...and, well, there is nothing more powerful than that.