Published on 31 March 2006
Translations available in: français . Español .

The challenge of intercultural dialogue

by Edith SIZOO
Associated Central Topics: Cross-culturalism, dialog and multilingualism . Cultures and responsibility .
Associated General Topics: Cross-cultural . Culture .

“Culture is where the dictionary ends
and where the linguist finds real meaning”

C.J. Moore

In a period of increasing international communication - which by its very nature is intercultural - there is a tendency to use concepts which are supposed to be understood in the same way by communities rooted in a great variety of different histories and cultural contexts all over the world. Notions like “democracy”, “(good) governance”, “transparency”, “solidarity”, “development”, “human rights”, “terrorism” etcetera are used carelessly as if they are culturally understood and practised in the same way everywhere. This leads to numerous intercultural misunderstandings and conflicts.

Everyone knows. Each language is rooted in the history of a people. Each language expresses a perception of the visible and invisible world, the human being, society and the relations between all that exists. These visions are nurtured by human experiences, old and new ones. And so, they are always evolving. Each language "is" a culture and expounds it; it brings to the fore people’s cultural bedrock.
The words constituting a language have a history too: their forms and their meanings have also developed in the course of time and are voicing culture as well.

However, studying the historical development of words and the concepts they contain does not suffice to understand their contemporary meaning. Words acquire their full meaning only through their relations with other words. They are part of a constellation of associations connected with their form as well as their meaning, in fact with both simultaneously [1].

Thus the open space between words is filled with meaning left unsaid, understandable only to those who know their cultural ground waters.
If on the one hand a word refers to an acoustic image (the "signifier"), it refers on the other hand to a mental image ("the signified"). A word does not refer to the thing itself, but to the idea the mind has formed of it, the concept. Thus, messages carried by words can be understood only if sender and receiver associate a sequence of sounds with similar mental images. In other words, those who speak to each other must share a same code, which determines the meaning. This code is not established in an individual manner, but rather in a collective way [2].
No wonder then that communication through language may create problems, even within a human group speaking the same tongue. And this, of course, will be more often the case when people immersed in different cultures try to communicate in a "common" language. At least for one of the two this will be a foreign tongue, that is to say "from outside", from elsewhere, from another nation, in short: not from home. And so the cultural under-standings, which words carry with them, tend to be rapidly transformed in cultural mis-understandings.

What to think for instance of the story related by Christopher MOORE [3] on the visit of the then Chinese President, in 1997, to the United States:

" WHEN Jiang Zemin caused a lot of fuss by suggesting that the idea of "democracy" originated 2000 years ago with Chinese philosophers. Liberal American commentators thought this absurd. But, as Elvin Geng, a graduate in Asian studies points out : the word minzhu first appeared in a classic work called Shuji where it referred to a benevolent "ruler of the people", that is , a leader whose legitimacy rests on the people’s welfare. Those who ruled by force and oppression, in contrast, wee not given this title. In the late nineteenth century, minzhu was the word used to translate "democracy" - in Chinese, the same term can mean "rule of the people" as well as "ruler of the people". Both uses of minzhu share the sense that the government ought to operate to meet the needs of the people. This criterion may be fulfilled by an enlightened dictator or a Leninist regime as well as by a US-style constituted democracy ".

Thus, there is no way of avoiding the reality of diversity. At the same time this reality poses the challenge of trying to understand cultural specificities because we are living in a process of increasing globalisation which also entails increasing communication between people from different cultures. Moreover, international contacts are becoming less and less restricted to governmental and business elites. The advent of civil society at global level, an international society claiming its right to participate in vital decisions concerning the future of the planet and humankind, becomes increasingly manifest. And citizens of our planet do not only want to communicate. Above all, they want to act together.

The objectives of these common actions are expressed by words. However, the citizens of the world, all children of the same Mother Earth, do not have the same mother tongue. Consequently, the objectives of the common action are "named" initially with the help of one of the dominant international languages. And too often, in the rush to act together, it is taken for granted that everyone ascribes the same meaning to "common" words.

Everyone knows: traps are hidden in communication between people from different cultures. But which ones? Exactly? Does everyone know them?

One thing is sure: the experience of international life has at least shown that it may be more prudent to take up the challenge of intercultural learning than to ignore it. The effort of trying to make explicit the diversity which enriches us in order to discover the commonalities that bring us together, is worth its while.
Intercultural dialogue is indispensable for acting together.

[1] This idea was developed in particular by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Cours de linguistique générale, Payot, Paris, 1972

[2] See : Julia KRISTEVA, Le langage, cet inconnu, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1981 and Vincent NYCKEES, La Sémantique, Editions Belin, Paris, 1998

[3] C.J. Moore : In Other Words, Oxford University Press, 2005 ISBN 0 19 280624 6 (p. 12)


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