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why save Greenlandic?

Monday 31 August, 2009

I read with interest this article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday section Saving world’s words by Jason George. The reason I’m highlighting this article is that Americans tend to minimize the importance of learning foreign languages because English is so predominant in the world today.  They refuse to localize their websites into different languages, yet expect foreign buyers to feel comfortable buying in a language that’s not their own.  Some would say, “Let foundering languages die.”  My response would be, to quote from the article, “language is much more than words-it’s our culture, our history.  It’s what connects people to one another.”  By failing to learn others’ languages & expecting others to communicate with us in our language, we are missing prime opportunities to learn about other cultures, which can make big differences in negotiating with foreigners.

In learning German, it occurred to me that there is a chicken & egg relationship between languages & how people think.  German is a very structured language, with sentence elements in specific positions, nouns taking certain forms, etc.  In turn, Germans are typically methodical & precise, a direct reflection of their language.  I don’t know if the language teaches them how to think or if how they think determines how they speak;  it just seems to me the 2 are inextricably linked.  In trying to learn French while working @ the Canadian consulate to work better with the Quebecers, the differences between French & German became apparent, just like the differences in people.  German for the most part is pronounced as it’s spelled.  French leaves a lot more open, just as the French are a lot more laissez faire than the Germans.

Americans need to learn foreign languages to address the world in its terms rather than expecting the world to accede to our terms.  It’s generally ethnocentric to assume that all businesspeople speak English well-some don’t.  It’s simply wrong to assume that intelligence is reflected by the ability to speak English, which Americans assume all the time.  There are many many foreign business people who don’t speak English very well, but do a great job of leading their local organizations.  Americans limit their opportunities to do business in places where they can’t speak the language.   Although other English-speaking countries can be a good place to start, citizens of those countries typically suffer from the same blinders that Americans do, missing opportunities in places where they don’t speak the language.  Languages provide insights into values & decision-making, which can be immensely helpful when dealing with foreigners.  Again, German reflects how the Germans think, so keeping that in mind when working with them makes things much easier.  Respect other languages by encouraging & learning them.

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