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Languages, native speakers, culture

People who follow me probably know already that I’m not a native English speaker. Those who don’t but will read this whole post will probably notice it by the end of it, just by my style, even if I were not to say it right at the start as I did.

It’s not easy for me and it’s often not easy for my teammates, especially so when they are native speakers. It’s too easy for the both of us to underestimate or overestimate, at the same time sometimes, how much information we’re conveying with a given phrase.

Something might sounds absolutely rude in English to a native speaker, but when I was forming my thought in my head it was intended to be much softer, even kind. Or the other way around: it might be actually quite polite in English, and my interpretation of it would be, to me, much ruder. And this is neither an easy or quick problem to solve, I have been working within English-based communities for a long while – this weblog is almost ten years old! – and still to this day the confusion is not completely gone.

It’s interestingly sometimes easier to interact with other non-native speakers because we realize the disconnect, but other times is even harder because one or the other is not making the right amount of effort. I find it interestingly easier to talk with speakers of other Latin languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese), as the words and expressions are close enough that it can be easy to port them over — with a colleague and friend who’s a native French speaker, we got to the point where it’s sometimes faster to tell the other a word in our own language, rather than trying to go to English and back again; I promised him and other friends that I’ll try to learn proper French.

It is not limited to language, culture is also connected: I found that there are many connections between Italian culture and Balkan, sometimes in niches that nobody would have expected it to creep up, such as rude gestures — the “umbrella gesture” seems to work just as good for Serbs as it does for Italians. This is less obvious when interacting with people exclusively online, but it is something useful when meeting people face to face.

I can only expect that newcomers – whether they are English speakers who have never worked closely with foreigners, or people whose main language is not English and who are doing their best to communicate in this language for the first time – to have a hard time.

This is not just a matter of lacking grammar or dictionary: languages and societal customs are often interleaved and shape each other, so not understanding very well someone else’s language may also mean not understanding their society and thus their point of view, and I would argue that points of view are everything.

I will make an example, but please remember I’m clearly not a philologist so I may be misspeaking, please be gentle with me. Some months ago, I’ve been told that English is a sexist language. While there wasn’t a formal definition or reasoning for why stating that, I’ve been pointed at the fact you have to use “he” or “she” when talking about a third party.

I found this funny: not only in Italian you have to do so when talking about a third party, but you have to do so when talking about a second party (you) and even about a first party (me) — indeed, most adjectives and verbs require a gender. And while English can cop-out with the singular “they”, this does not apply to Italian as easily. You can use a generic, plural “you”, but the words still need a gender — it usually become feminine to match “your persons”.

Because of the need for a gender in words, it is common to assume the male gender as a “default” in Italian; some documentation, especially paperwork from the public administration, will use the equivalent of “he/she” in the form of “signore/a”, but it becomes cumbersome if you’re writing something longer than a bank form, as every single word needs a different suffix.

I’m not trying to defend the unfortunate common mistake to assume a male gender when talking about “the user” or any other actor in a discussion, but I think it’s a generally bad idea to assume that people have a perfect understanding of the language and thus assign maliciousness when there is simple naïve ignorance, as was the case with Lennart, systemd and the male pronouns. I know I try hard to use the singular “they”, and I know I fall short of it too many times.

But the main point I’m trying to get across here is that yes, it’s not easy, in this world that becomes more and more small, to avoid the shocking contrast of different languages and cultures. And it can’t be just one side accommodating to this, we all have to make an effort, by understanding the other side’s limit, and by brokering among sides that would be talking past each other anyway.

It’s not easy, and it takes time, and effort. But I think it’s all worth it.

Comments 3
  1. I know exactly what you mean. I am French and I have spent 14 of the last 16 years in Australia and New Zealand and I am married to an ozzie. Well we have our misunderstanding even after more than 10 years of marriage.She still find it strange that things have gender in French and that for me neutral is male. There are also dialect differences, I have been taught stuff that may have been acceptable in UK but apparently aren’t in Australia, subtle stuff.I like the comment about latin people I found out while in Italy some years ago that I could mostly understand Italian. I just can’t talk back :)In my office non native outnumber the native speakers by a fair amount and the other month I was talking with a Spanish colleague, he could not find the English word so he used the Spanish one which I connect to the French and in turn translated it back to English 🙂 so your case is not unique but it is always funny when it happens.Also native English speakers often only speak one language and those have the hardest time understanding the cultural barriers. Learning a foreign language opens you in ways that are hard to imagine when you only speak one language.

  2. Good point, not just in Elnglish/non English communication but also in general.

  3. Polite people would attribute rudeness to their language misunderstanding or to the fact it’s not the native language of the speaker. And those who want to offended will be offended no matter what you say.As for gender system — it’s illogical and varies from language to language. Pre-1918 Russian, for instance, had plural female pronoun and word endings related to that but not any more. In East Asian languages you have lots of pronouns that you have to use depending on politeness level but usually they don’t point on gender (the usual exception is when woman talks about herself). In some Indian languages (and ancient Japanese) it was drastically different language for different genders (in Japanese women still use different first-person pronouns, verb endings and particles in ordinary speech). And of course Swedish language experiments that include du-reform (i.e. not using polite second person pronoun anymore) and proposed “hen” pronoun to address a third person in a gender-neutral way.

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