As linguists, our primary responsibility is to accurately transfer information from one language into another, which can only be achieved if we are culturally competent. Why? Language does not exist in a vacuum; rather, in order to be used effectively, it ought to exist within some cultural context. Without the cultural context, our rendition is robotic, confusing, and at times incomprehensible. I learned this lesson “the hard way” when I first arrived in Germany – despite previously feeling like I would blend in easily.
I was excited to use my great language skills in my first encounter with a native speaker in Germany. Confident in my unaccented speaking, I gave my new address to the cab driver. He immediately asked, “So where are you from? Canada? US?”
How did he know? I wondered—and asked. “You gave me the house number and then the street name. In German, you say the street name first, then the house number,” he explained. Who knew?
Turns out, it is not enough to merely speak the language – we must be culturally intelligent too, i.e., be capable of relating across different cultures while using the language effectively. Culture affects language in many ways: for example, how Germans talk about an injury or body part is grammatically very different from English, in that the relation is much more detached, or less possessive. In English, we talk about our body parts with a personal possessive pronoun, like “my head” or “my toe”. For example, “I stubbed my toe” in German is more like “I stubbed the toe of me” (with possession indicated only by a reflexive pronoun with the verb). If you want to say “I’m brushing my teeth” or “washing my hair” (hair is plural in German, by the way—“washing my hairs”), you say “I’m brushing the teeth” and “washing the hair(s)” (again, with a reflexive pronoun to indicate your teeth or hair). Further, in English, we say “I’m cold” or “I’m hot” when talking about temperature or climate. However, the literal translations “Ich bin kalt” (I am cold) or “Ich bin heiss” (I am hot) only assert emotional coldness or lasciviousness in German and are not used to express level of temperature comfort.
Beyond familiarizing myself with basic expressions in German, learning to navigate the workplace in a foreign country from a cultural perspective was also a new challenge. For example, I never received an email stating “You broke the printer, now fix it” in the US, where people usually go out of their way to protect each other’s feelings in the workplace. A German office, however, is much less bothered with emotions. That said, while a or 😉 would rarely find its way into business communication stateside, smileys make a big difference in written German. They are sprinkled around very generously—which I feel would have made all the difference in the above-mentioned email about the printer. I quickly got the hang of this and now find it a very difficult habit to break that I’m back in the US. 😉
Cultural intelligence is crucial for performing our responsibilities as linguists. Can you imagine hearing a list of locations in street name then building number order while interpreting for a deposition? In any environment and within any context, increased cultural awareness adds a layer of accuracy and quality to your translations and interpreting processes.
Please share your experiences — how do the cultures you interpret for affect your interpretation?