Intercultural dialogue and language: the influence of our mother tongues

Dialogue’ derives from the  Greek  term  “dia-logos”,  widely  mistranslated  and  wrongly  understood  because  of  a  confusion  between “duo”  and  “dia”.  ‘Dialogue’ does  not  mean  a  conversation  between  two  people or  two  groups,  but  an acceptance, by  two  participants  or  more,  that  they  will  compare and  contrast  their  respective  arguments. One element integral to its success is the language that will be spoken, to exchange such viewpoints. Judith McKimm, expert in intercultural communication, shares with us her thoughts on how much language represents a door to culture and predicates the emotions attached to it, both of which will necessarily influence one’s speech. In this short piece, she highlights the importance of bearing in mind such dimension, in order to have constructive dialogues.


Being exposed to multiple cultural influences has been part of my life since birth and this has defined who I am. I was born in a country that was not my parents’ home country, and have since lived in 6 others. Each time was a new immersion into a new culture with its people, its landscapes, its climate, its food and its language. Therefore one could say that working as an interculturalist and intercultural mediator was a natural development that followed a vocation. I have chosen this path with the desire to further intercultural dialogue and understanding by providing others with the necessary tools to help them make sense of cross-cultural encounters, as well as to help them prevent or resolve intercultural conflict situations. It is a multifaceted area of work, which addresses topics such as the awareness and negotiation of ascribed, chosen or acquired identity traits, intercultural communication, building intercultural competences, finding individual ways of acculturation to a new environment as an outsider, attending to culturally determined conflict styles, and many more.


One area that is of particular interest to me is the role of language in intercultural communication. Language is the door to a culture. It reflects the values inherent in a cultural group and it describes the world in its subjective reality. Our culture, language, identity and emotions are intrinsically interconnected. So when we speak in our mother tongue, we reflect the aspects of our culture that constitute our identity. On the other hand, when speaking in a second language, the emotional connection with the foreign culture and feeling whether it is part of our identity depends on the level of language proficiency and the degree of acculturation. That is, how much of the new culture we have adopted and are able to embody because a part of us can identify with it. Therefore, the spectrum can range from using a language simply as a means of communication with people from another culture, to language embodiment, whereby speaking this language makes us assume a different persona and convey a second cultural identity that has been created within us. The further we are on the former side of this spectrum, communicating in a second language may lead to misunderstandings. The message that we want to convey may not accurately reflect all the nuances that are intended; therefore the message received by the other person may be incomplete or distorted. The receiver may also lack the necessary proficiency or cultural understanding and therefore miss some details, misinterpret the content and form a false judgement. So the quality of mutual understanding depends on many factors on both sides, like the level of language proficiency, the degree of intercultural competences and of cultural understanding, and the level of stress when communicating.


When emotions come into play while speaking in a second language, it often turns out that they cannot be accurately conveyed and therefore appear falsified. The reason for this is that our emotions and their expression is linked to our primary language. Only when speaking in our mother tongue can we express what we truly feel and truly feel what we express. As a mediator in cross-cultural cases I have often experienced the difficulties when people in conflict had to revert to a second language. Not being fully understood means not being heard and this can –in some cases– result in silence and ultimate withdrawal from the process. When instead people have the opportunity of communicating in their language of origin, the change in the quality of the conflict resolution process becomes evident. When speaking in their own language, people are able to express themselves without constraints and limitations and appear to be freed from what otherwise manifests itself as a straight jacket. The direct connection to their emotion is palpable, it becomes visible and unfalsified, imbued with nonverbal expression. And it is then that they are able to truly feel heard.


This was the case in a mediation where one of the parties involved was the only foreigner in the room. The language used was the local language and everybody else’s mother tongue. Although she spoke it quite fluently, at a certain point of the mediation, she remained silent. Despite the mediator’s efforts to make her speak, she refused. In the culture she found herself in, this was interpreted in a very negative manner. It was seen as a refusal to cooperate and an attempt to boycott the mediation. Thankfully, one of the people present had the idea of calling her husband with whom she was able to speak in her language. This allowed her to unblock the deadlock and release her emotions. She later said that before this moment she had not felt understood or heard by anybody – she had felt invisible.


To me, this is an example that illustrates how sometimes, in order to conduct a fruitful intercultural dialogue, a common international language should not be the default position. Oftentimes it is not possible to have an interpreter at hand. But we must make an effort and be mindful of all the participants’ linguistic needs. We can show our interest and awareness by simply asking: “How would you say this in your language?”, or “How does it feel to you when you say it in your language?”, “Could you try to explain?” The answer might involve a story and it might trigger a different exchange that can help bring us closer to understanding each other’s reality.

Languages / Global