Monday, July 20, 2015

Lost in Words


International communication, something treated as a course subject, a research topic, or an often-talked concept, comes alive with the SUSI program where 17 scholars from 16 countries are put into the same room and expected to talk, exchange, and communicate.  The language for this communication, like any other communication that is international, is English.  It is handy to have a language that everyone can speak and understand; it is fun to pick up each other’s accent; and it certainly comes as a pleasant surprise when I detect a trace of a mingle of Indian, African, and Latino accents in my own speech for I had thought the only accent I was going to pick up was American before I came here.   But what truly comes as an education, for lack of a better word, is the fact that however the accents may vary, the vocabulary and the discourse are the same.  By speaking the same language, the communication thus occurred assumes a uniformity that is obviously convenient yet alarmingly problematic. 

First, when the same language is used to communicate across borders, that language becomes restrictive.  You are always striving to find the English equivalent for the native word and in most cases even if you manage to find it, the English equivalent remains English while the native word in your head remains native because words are not simply words that are atrbitrary, but are words that have deep cultural roots and fixed meanings.  It is not just the fact that meanings are invariably and inevitably lost during the translation, but the fact that all the translations are done into the same language.  Hidden inside every little word of any language are sets of rules founded on a huge body of knowledge and dictating not only how politics, science, culture, way of life are discussed, but also such everyday incident as how a joke should be told.  So when a single language is used in communication, no matter what you want to say, the actual words come out the same.  So the actual picture of this international communication, both in a class-environment and a real-life environment, is surprisingly none-international.  No matter the speaker intends it or not, the communication done in the same language invariably conforms to the conventions, political, cultural, economic, or otherwise, embedded in the said language.  No matter what meanings the original words may have, when translated to the same language the words have the same meaning with its hidden dictating rules to explain the world.  So the so-called international communication have a restrictive, or conforming effect where participants by speaking the same language conforms to the international conventions set by that language, thus literally saying a lot yet communicating little. 

Second, as a scholar in the field of communication and journalism, I understand that though harmful and unfair, stereotyping is unavoidable in any form of communication.  In a sense, we understand the world through stereotypes.  But what surprises me is how easy stereotyping occurs and how immediate people fall back on stereotyping when real international communication happens, especially in a unique environment like SUSI where people from different countries meet in a third country.  Deprived of any tangible context, any words spoken during this international communication are taken at face value.  A chance word becomes a maxim.  A joke is taken as truth.  An isolated incident narrated is received as universal phenomena.  In a word, at the rush of the moment, stereotypes are born simply out of lack of context and sometimes out of an urge of just keeping the conversation going with everybody nodding along without true understanding.

So what’s the solution?  The obvious answer is more communication, also a realization that communication should not be taken lightly.  We, as scholars and practitioners, now equipped with a deeper understanding of its possible handicaps and inner restrictions, might be able to build on that and do better if we keep in mind the above pitfalls.

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