‘Watch your language’ – a comment often heard by children when they are out of line. Yet it’s a truism I was conscious of recently as I lectured a group of foreign students from a very different culture. It was not a question of their understanding of the English language. It was how I had to vary meaning in my references to explain concepts to them – in order to communicate clearly, to a different culture, with different societal thinking patterns.
It brought back memories of many occasions with friends on my travels through english speaking foreign countries when I felt excluded because I did not understand their conversation, their references…their language.
It’s not what you say it’s how you say it – how often does this ring true in arguments? Misunderstandings of a minor scale can blow up and become minefields. So if language and reference affect us on a personal level, does it also follow that misinterpretation on a grand scale exists at international level of conflict?
Listening to Author Roddy Doyle in interview last week regarding the publication of his new book Two More Pints brought home to me the question again of reference in language. A master at dialogue, Two More Pints is a gem in the Roddy Doyle collection of gems. The interviewer asked Roddy to read his current piece regarding Ian Paisley. Roddy hesitated, questioning if the language was appropriate for radio; the interviewer agreed it probably was. But it was how the reference of the f… word was interpreted. It gave deeper meaning and humour to the dialogue. In another context this would have not been the case.
People who live outside their country often say the thing they miss the most is their language. As an Irish person living abroad I too missed my language terribly; the inferences, the nuances, the double meanings, the wit, the turn of phase that resonated within and gave me connection to my identity and culture. Oh to have had Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints, and even Two More Pints then…it would have filled the void that only language can penetrate.
Language is powerful. Misunderstandings arise because of division through interpretation. Perhaps in our conversations be it with friend or foe, we should remember the axiom: I know you believe you understand what you think I said but I’m not sure you realize that what I said is not what I meant.
And at the end of the day, perhaps we are all not so far apart in our thinking patterns?