Beyond Language

 I read a very interesting article today in the NY Times. To me this work emphasizes how and what is communicated in different languages. It’s not just about knowing the words to say in another language (although that’s critical too). It’s about the experiences that makes us who we are as individuals and as part of a community.

The language we use reflects our knowledge about how to say things. It involves the semantics, grammar, and pragmatics of the language we learned. And while we often focus on differences in words and grammar across two languages I think that often that cross-linguistic pragmatics is overlooked in that context. That’s not to say that it’s not thought about– it is. But, it’s usually thought about separately from words and grammar. In fact there is a rich literature (probably in some cases more well-established literature) on cross-cultural differences. Check out West-Ed’s publications for some very practical applications. So, how does it all come together?

I think that the way we communicate information using words and grammar and what we assume about a situation contributes to how we derive meaning from those words. A lot of this has to do with who talks to who and how information is conveyed. I think some of the popular literature out there (and cross-cultural trainings I’ve been a victim of) focus on “rules” of interaction. Not that these aren’t helpful. Sometimes though they miss the point. There isn’t a formula for interacting in x culture vs. y culture. There are expectations and assumptions about what is known and not known and what people believe. That’s why “rules” help, but they’re not enough. It helps to understand why things are the way they are.

Anita Mendez-Perez and I discussed some of these issues relative to early intervention in an article in Zero to Three. Christine Fiestas and I also discuss these issues in a recent issue of Perspectives on Communicative Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations. In both of these we use Greenfield’s framework of collectivism and individualism to help us understand how families might view language development, assessment, and intervention in speech-language pathology.

The article in the NY Times focuses on similar issues that we deal with as speech-language pathologists who serve people who speak languages other than English. Part of it is on the struggle to communicate in the language of the families we serve. To me this involves providing care that is culturally appropriate, responsive, and respectful. That can mean knowing the language. And beyond knowing the language, knowing something about the everyday struggles families deal with and bring to us as a part of who they are. We need to find ways of engaging them in the interaction– even if we don’t have all the answers.

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