Language Culture And International Business Research Paper

Excerpt from Research Paper :

The Importance of Language in Understanding Culture


One of the lesser known, but important, programs of the United Nations is to promote the preservation of the world's languages. The UNDESA has incorporated language into sustainability standards, in particular concerned about the preservation of the world's languages that are most at risk. Language, the group argues, represents a way of thinking for a people (UNDESA, 2016). By that logic, it is essential to understanding a culture to understand its language. Culture is incredibly complex, and it can be impossible to fully understand a culture without immersion in it. But without immersion, learning more about a culture can facilitate mutual understanding, it can facilitate commerce, and it can allow for knowledge to be transferred from one culture to another. If each culture is viewed as a source of knowledge, then the vocabularies of each culture can be seen as a window to the collective knowledge of humanity.

For business, or just for any cultural interaction, knowing the language can be an important means by which understanding is cultivated. First, as noted above, language is a window into a culture, because culture has shaped the way that the language develops over time. But language also facilitates the transfer of knowledge and understanding in a way that few other cultural artifacts can. There is a role for things like music and art, but language remains a highly critical dimension along which culture, and therefore knowledge can be transmitted. This paper will examine the role that language plays in helping us to understand culture, and the value that can have for anybody engaged in cultural interaction, both recreational and business.

Language as a Culture Carrier

During the age of colonization, many if not most colonizers sought to attack elements of a local culture that were not aligned with colonial interests. Religion was always a popular target, but so, too, was language. Some actions taken to suppress local languages were deliberate, while in other cases languages were put under stress in more hegemonic ways – people would have to learn the colonizers' languages in order to have opportunities to thrive in the colonial society. With colonizers holding the keys to power in the area, the value of the local language for any sort of success or access to opportunity diminished, leading to decline over successive generations. Brandist (2015) discusses the hegemonic policies under Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, both of which used passive and active forms of hegemony to reduce the incidence of local languages throughout the Russian and Soviet empires. Many local languages have survived, but even then, in altered form, such as through the use of Cyrillic notations developed by Soviet bureaucrats.

As a window into culture, this makes for a fascinating study. In the post-Soviet world, many minority languages have reverted to scripts more common for their language groups. If one travels in the former stans today, one finds that Uzbekistan has switched to Latin script for its Turkic language, reflected a cultural desire to pivot towards Turkey's sphere of influence. Tajikistan, with its Persian language, has switched to the Farsi script. In Kyrgyzstan, the local language is still written in Cyrillic, despite being a Turkic language, because that country's ties are still closer to Russia than to Turkey.

Jiang (2000) argues that language is a mirror of culture. In order to understand a culture, he argues, one must understand the language, because the language is an essential tool by which hone can traverse a culture. The culture and the underlying logic of the language become intertwined. He points to similar words that have both the same general meaning and quite different specific meanings. Lunch in English and Chinese, for example, mean the same thing in terms of a midday meal, but what a midday meal is varies significantly for speakers of those languages. The word "dog" means the same animal, but what that animal means is quite different to most English and Chinese-language speakers. A truer understanding of those words, to those two broad cultural groups, would require a more in-depth understanding of the languages.

The reality of the underlying context of even common words highlights the challenges faced when translating languages, as Nida (1998) points out. Language needs culture in order to have meaning. An interesting observation...
...Think of how one's grandparents use certain words that had different meanings or levels of social acceptability in their times, but seem dated in that usage now, even though the speaker is still living.

That meanings can be in a state of flux creates an imperative to learn language in order to understand culture. It may be simple to do a verbatim translation using technology now, but without context the translation could provide a very poor understanding, compared with actually knowing the language. The challenge, of course, is that possession of a superficial level of knowledge is insufficient to truly understand a culture, and may even due harm to understanding, in that someone with a little knowledge of a subject often feels that they know more than they do; only when you acquire greater knowledge do you start to comprehend just how little you really know. Like the person who travels to Europe one summer, and comes back thinking they are worldly.

Montasser (2015) examined the complex links between language and culture. Writing about the merits of teaching culture along with language when teaching English in the Arab world, two things stand out. First, some culture is going to be inherently conveyed regardless of whether it is explicitly taught. But with English being a global lingua franca, it is possible to teach English in primarily a transactional way, conveying little culture beyond legal and business concepts. This discussion veers into whether or not teaching other cultures inherently damages Arab identity, as may be happening in other parts of the world where English is taking over organically from smaller local languages.

But the thought raises another issue – how does one teach "English" culture, given how many different cultures use English as a first language. Does such a thing exist? Native English speakers actually get a window into these cultures when the learn the differences between different Englishes. The complex relationship between England and Scotland is revealed in the ways that the Scots language finds its way into the nation's English. Canada uses a mix of English and American spellings, highlighting dual linguistic influences on what is in theory a homogenous cultural group.

Language in Business

One of more interesting aspects of language as a culture is its use in business. For as long as different cultures have done business together, business communication has relied on transactional meeting of the minds. In many cases, this is done via a dominant language, but in many situations a lingua franca would emerge to play the role of the business language. The Chinook jargon of the northwest coast of North America is a good example, being able to unite people of many different cultures with basic words with which simple transactions could be conducted. In multilingual nations today, the colonial language is often considered to have less baggage that selecting a dominant local language, and thus English, French, Spanish and Portuguese are common business languages around the world, simply as a means of de-politicizing business transactions –even in India, English is a more viable business language than Hindi, because the nation's non-Hindu communities reject connotations of Hindu nationalism that are embedded in widespread use of Hindi.

What has changed in recent years is that not all business between cultures is transactional in nature. Simple language gets the job done when negotiating prices and quantities, but when a company wishes to serve the entire world, it takes more than that, and in multiple different ways. First, multinational companies wish to do business all over the world. A company selling consumer products has to have a high level of cultural knowledge in order to sell effectively in a foreign country. The business world has moved far past the Chevy Nova in Mexico-type stories, but only after making such mistakes in the first place. Marketers at the very least need to be immersed in a local culture and that typically means linguistic natives are required, or at least preferred.

Beyond that, some particular challenges can be best addressed by people from certain cultures. Understanding how a language works, and the influence it has on culture, can be key to understanding why certain countries produce a lot of artists, and others a lot of software engineers. Doing business around the world means there is opportunity to recruit around the world, and that means understanding culture becomes important.

Teaching Culture as a Means of Teaching Language

Sources Used in Documents:


Beamer, L. (1992) Learning intercultural communication competence. International Journal of Business Communication. Vol. 29 (3)

Brandist, C. (2015) The dimensions of hegemony: Language, culture and politics in revolutionary Russia. Brill. Leiden, NL.

Jiang (2000) The relationship between culture and language. ELT Journal. Vol. 54 (4) 328-334.

Montasser, M. (2015) Culture and English language teaching in the Arab world. Adult Learning Vol. 26 (2) 66-72.

Nida, E. (1998) Language, culture, and translation. Journal of Foreign Languages. Vol. 115 (3) 29-33.

Seelye, N. (1984) Teaching culture, strategies for intercultural communication. National Textbook Company, Lincolnwood, IL.

UNDESA (2016) Protecting languages, preserving cultures. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Retrieved December 7, 2018 from

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