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Language Learning & Managing Expectations

If you know anything about cross-cultural missions work, you probably know that language learning is really important. How else can you share the Gospel if you can say things that people understand?  However, culture learning is sometimes overlooked. In the short video below, I highlight one of challenging aspects of language learning.  If you are from a Western country and are working in East Asia, you will probably be able to relate.  If you’ve never lived in Asia or some other part of the world that has a high-context culture, let me reassure you that what you are about to see really happens.

If you like reading more than watching, scroll down for the video transcript.  But keep in mind, the video is more fun.

Video Transcript

Cross-cultural communication is about more than language learning. It is also about managing expectations.

For example, if I were in the United States and I asked somebody,

  • Excuse me, where is the market?

Then I might be expecting an answer something like

  • You go down this way, take a left and it will be on the right hand side.

The listener understood that I wanted specific verbal directions and that’s what I got.

However, if I were in Thailand and I asked someone

  • ขอโทษนะครับ  ตลาดอยู่ที่ไหนครับ (Excuse me, where is the market?)

I might get an answer like

  • โน้น (over there) *motions with head*

As an American, I don’t find that kind of answer abundantly helpful because it doesn’t give me enough information to go on to find the market.

But Thailand is a high context culture where non-verbal communication is valued. Background and contextual information is assumed.

In low context cultures like North America or Europe, the majority of information is verbal so precision and detail in words is important.

The important point is this: If you’re trying to communicate in a second language, and you are not getting the answers you are hoping for, the problem may not be language learning. The problem may be with culture learning.

Picture of Written by Karl Dahlfred
Written by Karl Dahlfred

Karl and his wife, Sun, are OMF missionaries serving in Thailand. Karl teaches at the Chiang Mai Theological Seminary.

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