Growing up in a bilingual household offers opportunities to deeply understand and experience the similarities and differences between how any two languages might support the communication of a concept within a different mindset or from a language-enabled perspective. This skill has become useful in a ubiquitously international business environment internally, as well as externally, within many company’s communications circles.
I witnessed the mindset differences just the other day at a table of colleagues of mixed nationalities and first languages. Mark said, “I dropped the model.” The Spanish speakers were the first to empathize and relate their concern for his self-admonishment. Given that they would have said that “the model fell,” I could only imagine the distress in how he had communicated this experience that led them to believe he was over-reacting. Spanish speakers would have faced that experience differently. Another client told me in Spanish that she went to put her glass down “y la mesa no estaba.” (“the table wasn’t there.”) In Spanish, metaphorical language is common and no one would have thought badly of this widely used expression. To a non-Spanish speaking audience, that phrase might translate as shirking responsibility or just being silly, flowery, and imaginative. I could hear someone say, “Did the table grow legs?” And everyone would laugh …. if they didn’t speak Spanish.
Does one hold himself responsible and the other shake off accountability? Or is one clearly expressing the serendipitous nature of dropping a glass while the other is taking blame for something that was an accident and (possibly) out of his control? Is there a right and wrong attitude? Or are they simply different? And if they are different, could that be a source of conflict?
One of the most valuable concepts studied in negotiation and mediation training is mindset. How does one’s mindset affect decision making and negotiating techniques? How does mindset affect communication and outcomes of meetings? What does it mean to “win and lose” in distinct cultures? Where does someone’s mindset originate? Is it nature or nurture that leads us to think of ourselves in relation to the rest of the world?
Consider that the language we learn as children to describe ourselves, the people, and pets we love, what we do all day in our personal and professional lives, affects how we experience the consequences of our decisions, those of others, and natural events. Our native language asserts a vision of our current position in relation to the world around as affected by our mindset. It is then in multilingualism that we are able to perceive our environment through filters that color things with different shades and varied hues.
For that reason, there are lists of words and short phrases in every language for which there are no direct translation but that carry subtlety and nuance in their usage. For example, what is the difference between love and affection? Or affection or lust? And in Spanish, the words amar and gustar are not interchangeable, although they both express one’s positive feelings towards another person or thing. How is it different to arrive than to show up?
Cognates are groups of words that originate from the same language roots. False cognates have the added effect of culture on language and hold the risk of assumption in meaning and definition of two words that sound the same and often have the same spelling, but which over time and changes in society, have taken on different (not necessarily opposing) meanings. False cognates can be dangerous when people assume that they understand the meaning. For example, the word sensible. In English and Spanish pronunciation of this word is clearly different. In English, the first syllable is stressed; in Spanish, it is the second syllable that is stressed. Larousse English and Spanish Dictionary defines the word sensible as “sensato” and “razonable” in Spanish (mindful and reasonable). The other side of Larousse’s Spanish dictionary defines the Spanish word sensible as “sensitive.” There is much that goes into studying when and where words and language diverge in their development over time, there is no doubt that culture and societal values and principles heavily influence their evolution. How would the verb google have developed without technological advancement? Language changes as we change. How we define the We affects how the language changes.
Studying English or Spanish as a second language with an instructor will expose you to the differences and similarities in the two languages to improve your communication skills with either audience, or in either language. Reflection on the power of our words and the effects they have on the audience or listener is key to communicating so that we are not only heard but also understood. We can then fulfill our obligation as leaders and ensure that messages which ring offensive, or untrue, or do not translate sensibly are without merit.