Lingua Diversa?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 5 13:06:18 UTC 2006

Just like us? Not likely


Growing international competition from the European Union, China, India,
and other countries has created urgent challenges for the United States.
How well this country will fare in the new global reality will no longer
depend on American political influence, military might, or capacity to
expand economic productivity. Instead, leaders of American institutions
and business organizations will need to acquire, develop, and master
international cultural fluency. The world is moving toward a uniform
material culture, dominated by mostly material American influences:
technological innovations, fashion, Hollywood and the celebrity culture it
promotes, hip-hop, and rock 'n' roll. But the pervasiveness of the
trappings of American culture obscures the central cultural paradox that
lies within the globalization process:  Although people around the world
may wear, eat, and listen to American products, they continue to maintain
their deeply ingrained values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions. They
may embrace the material products of modernity, but they cling tenaciously
to their underlying cultural cores which remain vibrant and resiliently

For example, an Andalusian businessman may purchase the most precise Swiss
watch on the market, but that does not mean that he will be bound by the
notions of punctuality rigidity, if you ask him that regiment the lives of
northern Europeans. Conservative Islamic individuals may welcome Western
technology but also reject secularism, Western democratic practices, and
notions of gender equality. In fact, new forms of cultural hybrids have
surfaced as the bedrock values and beliefs of the world's cultures sport
the veneer of an increasingly visible and audible North American material
culture. For example, a person whose native language is not English can
adopt the English language as a means of communication for a variety of
reasons, including the desire to reach a broader audience or the need to
use a more precise language with a richer vocabulary. (English has about
900,000 words, while French, for example, has fewer than 100,000.) Yet
that same person will most likely retain his or her own cultural identity
as a writer. Thus a Cuban author, like me, may write in English while
maintaining a Cuban voice, working with a particular palette of symbols,
themes, rhythms, forms of irony, and humor that is characteristic of Cuban

Another example: Four Spaniards may have lunch at the McDonald's in
Madrid's Gran Va. They may consume Big Macs, French fries, and what passes
for milkshakes. But at the same time, they will probably practice the
various rituals and meanings associated with eating out in Spain. They
will eat as a social, rather than an individual, activity. They will have
a later, longer, nonrushed meal, perhaps followed by a siesta. The person
who invited the others will pay for the meal. They will never go Dutch,
and rarely will they let a woman pick up the check. And they will never,
God forbid, take out a calculator at the register to divide the tab
equally. The same phenomenon occurs with music. In the United States, the
Walkman and the iPod are the symbols and technologies of an
individualistic enjoyment of music. In contrast, a middle-class Angolan
teenager may purchase a CD of American rock 'n' roll yet probably play
that music in a communal fashion, with several people listening, dancing,
or singing along.

The assumption among Americans that people from other cultures are
becoming "just like us" simply because they use the same products or wear
the same clothes is leading to many cultural misunderstandings. Almost
everyone knows that saying "Can you please pass the jelly?" (instead of
"jam") while having tea in London may lead to faintings among one's table
mates. But are we aware that if we are invited to dinner in an Arab home
and bring food or a bottle of wine, it will be offensive not only because
Islam condemns the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but also because
the gift implies that the hosts cannot afford to provide the meal? Or that
while direct and assertive conversations are generally used while
conducting business in the United States, that style is deemed
inappropriate and rude by Japanese businessmen? Or that Hispanic people
are less likely to say no to an invitation, because refusing it regardless
of whether or not they plan to attend would be discourteous? Even with the
United States' success in spreading its material culture throughout the
world, such underlying values, mores, and habits persist.  Being unaware
of that that is, lacking international cultural fluency will hurt
Americans both individually and as a country, whether we are trying to
seal a business deal with Mexican executives, penetrate the Vietnamese
consumer market in Los Angeles, or build a real coalition for war or peace
in the Middle East.

What's more, the majority of Americans lack basic foreign-language skills.
In past decades, the nation's government, business, and intellectual
leaders were ill prepared to face the linguistic challenges of having
Russian-speaking foes and of sharing the hemisphere with Spanish- and
Portuguese-speaking neighbors. More recently the grave scarcity of fluent
Arab-language interpreters and translators in the FBI, the military, and
the State Department has cost the nation dearly, hampering its fight
against Islamic terrorists and Iraqi insurgents.

The extent of geographic illiteracy among American students and the
general population is notorious and embarrassing. Survey after survey have
demonstrated that students and people in general in the United States rank
near the bottom compared with their counterparts from other industrialized
countries. This year the National Geographic Society released the results
of a survey showing that only a quarter of Americans between the ages of
18 and 24 could identify Iran or Israel on a map, only 36 percent could
find England, and, incredibly, 6 percent could not even find the United

How do we prepare the United States and its citizens for continuing and
growing challenges of globalization? The voting booth might be a good
place to start. We should reject political candidates and leaders who cast
their opponents' cosmopolitan experiences and sensitivities as almost
unpatriotic. During the 2004 presidential campaign, for instance,
Republicans painted the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, as
dangerously Europeanized because he had studied abroad, spoke several
languages, and played classical guitar. We should also seek to reform our
schools and colleges. Unfortunately, students in elementary and secondary
education are taught to pass standardized tests but are not prepared to
pass life tests that require communicating across cultures. Our K-12 and
higher-education systems should do a much better job of producing
graduates who are not only multilingual but also fluent in cultural and
geographic literacy.

While English is the world's lingua franca, the mastery of foreign
languages is essential for the international exchange of products and
ideas. As I recently heard someone put it, "If you want to buy anything
from anywhere in the world, you can manage with only English; if you want
to sell something abroad, you'd better learn the language of your targeted
customers." In these times of marked perhaps obsessive emphasis on math
and science education, colleges should strengthen their language
requirements to produce graduates who can communicate and function
effectively in an increasingly globalized world and a multilingual
country. We should, for example, start teaching Chinese in school and
college, and expand opportunities for students to master the Spanish
language, spoken by close to 40 million Hispanics and Latinos in the
United States.

Likewise study-abroad programs should be democratized and made more
affordable, so that more students can include such experiences as part of
their higher education. Paradoxically, and unfortunately, as the
importance of multilingual skills and international cultural fluency
expands, the role of the humanities and social sciences continues to erode
within most American colleges as resources are redirected toward the hard
sciences, engineering, and the health sciences. American institutions
whether the State Department, Wal-Mart, The New York Times, or the local
community college can also do their part by hiring and further training
internationally fluent decision makers, skilled at navigating the
challenging waters of our diverse nation and globalized world. College
graduates with degrees in the humanities and social sciences, and people
from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, are best suited to play
the role of interlocutors and cultural translators. Ignoring or
underutilizing their skills and knowledge will hurt the nation in the
marketplace of goods and services, as well as in the global marketplace of

Luis Martnez-Fernndez is director of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino
studies at the University of Central Florida.


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