Language, culture, and global teams

One of my favorite professors at Harvard was a quirky cosmopolitan named Bruno della Chiesa. Bruno, as he insisted we call him, taught a January-term course called Learning in a Globalizing World in which he investigated the nexus of educational neuroscience, language, and culture.


One thing that stuck with me – although it was not a core aspect of the course – was the idea that the main indicator for whether a person learned another language was their respect for the people group who speak that language. Without deep respect for the people and their culture, it is nearly impossible to learn the language. At the end of the day, feelings of superiority and cultural arrogance slash one’s belief that learning their language is meaningful and worthwhile. Of course, there are many other factors that go into learning a language but the extent to which you respect another’s culture is a powerful indicator. At the end of the day, language and culture are inextricably linked, and learning language can give us key insights into other cultures.

Online translation tools reinforce the narrative that meaning is just about understanding the definition of words. But there is rich culture in language. A simple example from Thai is the use of age-indicating prefixes. Thais often use the word “pee” (meaning older sibling) before someone’s name when addressing someone who is older and “nong” (meaning younger sibling) when addressing someone younger. This means my younger sister or close colleague might call me “Pee Ozzie.” Knowing these simple linguistic indicators begins to unfold the complexity around social hierarchy and power distance in Thai culture. But more than that, since “pee” and “nong” refer to siblings, using those indicator words also implies closeness and reflects the collectivism present in Thai culture. The more you embed yourself in the language, the more nuanced your cultural understanding becomes.


Ceremony at Payap University showing respect for elders

As we consider the growing presence of global teams, I think it’s important to incorporate language learning – even just elementary language learning – into our daily lives. Even those of us who think, “Oh I can never learn another language,” there are many other simple tricks to begin incorporating foreign language learning into our daily lives. One thing we can do is to begin with names. Many of my Chinese students take English nicknames because their Mandarin names are so difficult to pronounce for Americans. We can ask to learn our Chinese friends’ real names. We can also ask people from other countries (and from your own country!) about the meaning of their names. There is often so much cultural meaning embedded in names, even if we’re not aware of it. Even my name, Oliver Stephen Crocco, has a cultural story to tell. My last name is Italian as I am half Italian and my great grandparents were immigrants to the United States from Italy. My middle name is my father’s first name, which is common practice in the United States for the first-born son. And my first name is the only name my parents could agree on when I was born. Not only that, they did not like Ollie as a nickname so called me Ozzie from the womb. My name tells the story of my family’s immigration to the U.S., male-centeredness in names, and a sort of cultural individualism regarding my first name.

Language and culture are inextricably linked. Being curious to learn other languages–even just names or small phrases–can go a long way. Learning languages is not just a reflection of our level of respect for other people, I think it is also a way of fostering respect for other people. When we learn other languages we begin to learn about the meaning and intricacies of other cultures, which is vital for working effectively in global teams.



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