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A Common Language …..a fallacy

In travelling the world, we think that if we know the language of the other person, we will be able to understand his words.

My experiences have borne out that this is a false start riddled with assumptions that the reality does not bear out.

That is, if you choose to analyse the experience with rigour and check thoroughly for the truth value of the interpretations of both sides.

Knowing the translations of words for simple things like nouns works ….the word ‘banana’ stands for a unique color and it is easy to find the equivalent of that object in most other languages ( except in countries where they have no apples and therefore no language equivalent).

But the associations it evokes for different groups of people would be totally different.

For a noun, the complete meaning is contained in pointing out the object that it represents in letters, plus the association of the object in the context of reality.

In the context of whose reality? An orange has connotations of ‘auspiciousness’ in the Chinese culture. Is that communicated when a Kenyan says the word in a common language?

For the Japanese ‘the nape of the neck’ is seen as sexy. Is that communicated when a Scotsman hears those words from his Japanese friend?

If a common language fails to represent in totality, simple constructs such as common nouns, imagine the disasters that arise because we think we understand the other person because we share a language and get mislead into totally wrong beliefs.

A few examples

1. The use of White in dress: In India it declares the widowed status of the woman or the bereaved status of the family, while in the West, the bride wears white. It is interesting that white represents almost opposing events.

2. The sounds of eating: Noisy eating in the West is considered bad manners and annoys co-eaters. Whereas in Gujarat enjoyment of the food is expressed through the sounds of eating. There is a word which describes the act and parents urge their children to eat a certain dish with a ‘fadaako’ as that adds enjoyment. Imagine the situation when these two groups get together. There is NO right or wrong.

4. More drastic examples of female skin exposure: In Saudi Arabia exposure above the heels is unacceptable, while the current TV shows evaluating the beauty of models depends on 100% exposure of skin. Is one less valid or more justified  than the other? Both sides think the other is being ridiculous.

5. Even more drastic is the example of monogamy. In many countries, the legal code allows only one married partner per person. However, in several tribes (I use the word tribes to loosely mean any ethnic group) a structure with multiple partners has evolved based on the environmental / situational challenges faced. Rationality demands perspectives that are uncolored by our own personal context in which our thoughts have been heretofore moulded. Looking objectively, every model is justified and valid in its context, and there seems no merit in uniformity purely for the sake of a common governance code. But judgments are seen all the time, and lamentably in a single direction, from those with the means – money, time and  interest –  to proselytize about the ‘right’ and the ‘ wrong’  and provide the singular way of living i.e. their way!

6. Abuse – I remember when Michael Jackson came under heavy fire for having kids sleep in his bed, which was interpreted as abuse. All over Asia, this is completely common. Kids do not sleep in individual rooms or even separate beds. Common sleeping areas are common, with hug-sleeping being a common way to sleep with kids that may or may not be your own. Different places and different ways of life.


With all these differences, a common language provides a bridge to understand the other. But it is clearly a bridge that is easy to fall off from, into dangerous the waters of misunderstanding and judgement.

In order to understand the other successfully, we would need to leave our own context behind and understand his words through his context, and not through our own.

Otherwise there is little point in even starting out.

Language is merely a necessity in acquiring that understanding but language alone is not sufficient.


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This entry was posted on October 2, 2010 by in Thought Kaleidoscope and tagged , , , , , , , .



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