The culture in words II

03/13/2014

It is difficult for even an advanced student of language to understand that although language is a universal human expression, individual ones can vary a great deal, depending on the culture of the group or person that speaks it. It is a mistake to believe that all the words, expressions and their usages in one language have the same meaning in another. Many of my advanced American students can read and speak Spanish fluently, but when speaking with an average immigrant, they complain that they can’t understand well what the other is saying, and think their failure stems from a lack of proficiency in the language.

It is common to see well-intentioned Americans trying to converse with immigrants in Spanish, whether formally or informally, about topics far removed from the immigrant’s level of comprehension and using words equally unfamiliar to him or her. The Americans fail to notice that the immigrant may avoid the subject because he or she lacks the vocabulary to understand it. Polite smiles, bewildered faces and false affirmations or denials by the immigrant, who is generally passive in the conversation, often result.

A living, spoken language does not exist in the abstract, so the major challenge for the learner is to understand the culture and circumstances of its speakers and how these things are expressed in the language in order to truly understand what is being said. This is relatively easy to do in one’s own language and in known contexts. Generally, even when new learners believe they can speak and understand the language well, they are inevitably filtering their communication through their own culture.

Since average Latino immigrants usually come from poor circumstances, either rural or urban, they are poorly informed, uneducated and socially neglected. This is very different from the average American’s circumstances. The linguistic and cultural differences between the two—more than just tamales or hamburgers—often lead to misunderstanding. Thus, an American speaking with a Latino immigrant almost always encounters barriers beyond the simple grammatical differences between their two languages.

If this can occur between speakers of the same language with different socioeconomic, cultural or physical origins, imagine what happens when the speakers are from different countries and radically different circumstances—a common occurrence in this country among Americans and recently arrived immigrants.  

Although these linguistic misunderstandings may at times seem to be merely anecdotal or even amusing, I have seen and heard many that had tragic consequences, especially when they occur between immigrants and representatives of the many systems of American life: police, lawyers, contractors, employers, businessmen, vendors, educators and, of course, immigration authorities. The cases are infinite, and the consequences, despite being virtually beyond the control of even those with the best intents, can create a series of problems, as well as anger and resentment. Mostly it is immigrants who are affected, but the complaints come from both sides. The origin of the problem transcends the good (or bad) intentions of those involved. 

When I speak of this situation I am often accused of stating the problem, but offering no solutions. First, one must recognize that there is little political will to resolve these differences. To do so one would need to address the so-called immigration problem, a topic that is so much in fashion these days but which, for political reasons, has not found a solution. From a global perspective, solving the problem would seem to require rethinking the foundations of the global economy—something that is unlikely to occur.  

The dependency of poor countries on wealthy ones increases daily. This is one of the clearest causes of out-of-control immigration. It is a vicious circle: the greater the wealth of a few, the greater the poverty of the rest. This leads to more immigration, generating more wealth and demand for more cheap immigrant labor, resulting in increased immigration ad infinitum. Immigrants are an important factor in the operation of the global economic machine, both in the country where they arrive and in their home country, where the money they send home is an important part of the economy.

We can see the result of this worldwide phenomenon every day in our streets, stores, restaurants, communication media and daily lives, and although it is increasingly spoken of, it would appear that the majority of people are blind to the presence of immigrants themselves—a presence that creates problems and benefits at the same time. Immigrants’ own lives and suffering, and the exploitation they experience, seem to be of little importance so long as they continue to be a useful part of the economy. Their presence doesn’t bother us much, and it even makes a few of us feel good—though also sometimes confused—when we try to help.