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The hidden aspects of bilingualism
by Joseph Gatt
2009-04-02 09:40:13
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So you’re dying to learn a language because it would be easier for you to get a job. The better you master that language, the more likely your pay will be high and you will be indispensable? Well guess again.

I know people who made a business out of bilingual education. And people who invested a fortune to acquire a second language. Some people would do anything to get their children to be bilingual. Some people pay hundreds of dollars a month to get a foreign nanny who will speak a foreign language to their children. Others spend thousands of dollars a year sending their children to international schools. Is that effective?

People often forget the cultural aspects when learning a language. Say you’re a white American. You invest thousands of dollars to learn a language, for example Chinese. As much as you may become fluent, guess who they will hire for the job available that requires someone to speak Chinese? The Chinese-American, or the Chinese immigrant.

No matter how fluently you may speak a foreign language, what recruiters don’t say is that they often look at the ethnic background before they hire people. A white American speaking Chinese is not credible. Here’s why.

Often people who work in a language need to interact with other people who speak the language. A Mexican client will not be as comfortable speaking Spanish to a white American lawyer than he would be speaking to a Mexican American lawyer. An Algerian businessman will not be as comfortable dealing with a White French businessman in Arabic as he would be with a French-Algerian in Arabic. Race is not the main reason, though.

Cultural background is critical when learning a language, and unless one has lived in that cultural background, he can not master the language perfectly. And a language not mastered perfectly is not desirable by any company. This means that the speaker of a language must not only master the language, but also accept every part of the subculture and have every cultural reflex a native speaker would have.

I have noticed that Koreans would rather speak broken English to white people than speak Korean. When I asked a Korean friend why, he answered speaking Korean requires the person who speaks Korean to “think differently”. “Thinking differently” would mean in the case of Korean knowing when to switch from polite to intimate forms of speech, switch from modest and refined speech to more casual speech when speaking and knowing in what situations it would be appropriate to laugh, to nod and even things like how to maintain eye contact and look at the person while talking. Any infringement of these cultural laws will make the native speaker feel very, very uncomfortable.

This fact applies to every language. People think differently in different languages and act differently according to situations. Some topics are acceptable in one language while they are considered inappropriate in another. Even eye contact, physical contact and body language are different depending on which language is being spoken.

The mere fact of speaking a language with an accent or having different body language can cause native speakers to be very uncomfortable. Within one language, cultural difference makes interaction with people impossible. In the United States, Asians, Hispanics, African Americans and White Americans never mix due to that difference of sub-culture. In France, people from Southern France are forced to change their accent and attitude to a Northern one when appearing on television. Imagine what this means for non-native speakers. 

Companies know that the better a businessman and their client communicate, the more mutual trust there will be. And the more trust, the more likely it is to have more transactions. Language is not the only barrier to communication, as culture is also a determining factor. In cultural and social communication, there can only be trust when two people use the same language. 

Does this mean that there is no such thing as bilingualism? No. People who grow up in two cultures long enough (4 to 7 years during key developmental years according to linguists) can be considered bilingual. As for children of immigrants or cross-cultural children, they often tend to forget the language spoken at home and use that they learn in school. And they often have no other cultural reference than their parents, which means that they often don’t know how to be “culturally appropriate” when speaking a language.

However, since etiquette and subculture are not written rules and codified, it is almost impossible for one to acquire the social and cultural aspects of another language. Imitating a culture or subculture different from someone’s original culture can not be done perfectly, and trying hard often leads to personality disorders.

So when you study another language think again. Are you studying it to satisfy your intellectual curiosity and facilitate contacts with a foreign culture or are you studying it because you want to get a better job. If it’s for the job, well than don’t expect to be indispensable. Companies prefer native speakers.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-04-02 11:55:19
This is an interesting, insightful seminal article which can perhaps be encapsulated by Fellini’s slogan as found on the language search of Ovi magazine: “A different language is a different vision of life.” I am willing to wager that Fellini must have been inspired to such notion from Giambattista Vico who explains language as the primary cultural tool of any society, a sort of window into the very soul of a people. That explains the persistence of dialects in Italy and elsewhere despite the ubiquity of national mass media, for when people speak a dialect with each other, it is as if they are sharing a well kept cultural secret that only they understand and nobody else, hence the reluctance to speak the language with non-natives; it's as if the secret is being violated. Moreover Vico believed that language is so basic to the understanding and survival of any culture that the disappearance of a language is similar to the disappearance of a species in the biological environment: it impoverishes and flattens it, reducing it to its lowest common denominator and threatening its very existence. Indeed, language for Vico is so primary that it precedes thought, just as poetry precedes philosophy, as strange as that may seem to the modern Cartesian rationalists who believes that thought somewhow lurks behind the poetical.

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-04-02 23:18:31
I've been living in six countries and what I have learned so far is that you must always pretend that you do not understand a single word from a local language.

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-04-02 23:31:55
Another reason for pretending not knowing the language well, or speaking with a heavy accent: if you strike your future employer as an overeducated guy(correct speech, educated pronunciation, good manners etc.), particularly if, due to financial difficulties, you are applying for some low end job, you will never get it. That is why some US immigrants are actually faking their accent (well, if you are Chinese, for example, you MUST speak with chinese accent - such explanations as "But I've been born here" are never good enough, somehow. People will drive you crazy by asking 'Where are you from?'

Danielle Snow2011-05-16 22:14:14
This is why it's important for every immigrant to the U.S. to learn and speak English in public-it's unrealistic-and unfair - to expect everyone to reverse-assimilate to newcomers-ridiculous!

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