Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The language barrier

You know, I sometimes have difficulty understanding some Chinese born Australians, even those that have been in Australia since the late 1980s.

Some people, despite their excellent grasp of the written word in English, continue to struggle with pronunciation.

There are some doctors that I work with whose English vocabulary is second to none, yet when we speak it is at times an uncomfortable experience. I find myself often asking them to repeat what they said. In these cases I find that we tend to gravitate towards email correspondence as our main medium of communication.

Ms B however speaks excellent English. She, like many of the doctors I work with, arrived in Australia in the late 1980s, and yet her spoken English is far superior to many others that came to Australia around the same time.

Having said that, we still experience many misunderstandings on the nuances, or subtleties of speech. I also find that Ms B often misunderstands my body language, which I believe is much restrained than the Chinese are used to.

We Anglo's also refrain from saying many things, which can be mis-interpreted by the Chinese as agreement, or even capituation.

This is almost the opposite of what I expected, given the emphasis of 'saving-face' which is such an important part of the Chinese culture.

My point here is that the mechanics of language, with all its difficulties, can often be overcome, as is evidenced in my work, but the subtleties of intimate communication will always be a struggle with cross-cultural relationships, I suspect because these things are hard-wired into us while we are young, and is probably something that we find difficult to re-learn.

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