WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

The essential role of humanities in our times

“Now, as then, we must value the humanities even in the midst of conflict and division. Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity. Our institutions must also play a leadership role by making the treasures of the humanities widely available. It is our responsibility to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, and to elevate and protect “the heritage of the human experience” that we all share.”

Source: Why we need humanities more than ever

 

For years I have been convinced that training in science, technology and economics is essential to prepare the young to the working world. Humanities certainly are interesting and important, but I always considered them as accessories.

My life abroad has changed this assumption.

While reading the above article, I found myself reflecting on which process I instinctively learned to set in motion when I have to face a relocation in a new country, and I want to find out more about the people living there. Despite my initial beliefs, I never start by investigating the scientific development and the technology level reached in the country. I certainly look into the economic development level, but this is an aptitude I learned from my university education that allows me to quickly understand the possible life style of population in function of the economical infrastructures available.

However, if I want to find out something about the people in order to be able to connect with diversity, I spontaneously start from literature. I read books, preferably novels of local authors. Literature tells me about a way of thinking, it tells me stories, it gives me hints on habits and ways human interactions are managed in that country.

humanitiesThen, if they are available, I go to exhibitions and local markets to find art crafts: art, and especially photography, makes me understand the feelings and the way local people interpret reality, it tells me about their lives, it is a mirror of how they see and go through life events.

And if in this journey through humanities I meet something I cannot relate to, I focus on it and make an effort to know more about, because most of the time that is the place where the difference is hidden: it is a part of humanity I do not understand yet.

With time and repeated culture shock, I realized that scientific discoveries, the level of technology and the economic development obviously give a lot of information about the people and their lifestyle, but they alone cannot illustrate cultural differences.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without humanities in my expat life: it is one of my most powerful tools to face culture shock. How many people should I get to know and how long would it take me before I can gather enough information to start understanding something about local culture? How can one neglect this aspect of human nature and think of being able to quickly build bridges between cultures and countries? Where there is no reciprocal understanding, communication becomes difficult. Education of new generations should stimulate this practice to open up to other cultures through humanities.

See our current challenge linked to this reflection.

Cristina Baldan
June 2017

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Linguistic empathy

What is linguistic empathy, and why is it important to practice it?

 

According to a survey of the Ethnologue, there are 7,099 distinct languages in the world, but only 23 of them account for more than half of the world’s population. Mandarin and Spanish rank first and second, but it is English, with its third place on the scale of most spoken languages, which is widely regarded as the lingua franca in most business and human interactions across countries.

Every language is the expression of a culture. Even little heard of languages like Angika, Glaro-Twabo and Tremembé stem from the repeated verbal interactions of the population that speaks them. Every single language in the world has its own particularities, grammatical structure and colloquialisms or slang. Some are common to most languages, some are not. Some languages do not have words for colours, others do not have the past tense. Some need to be reinforced by gestures; others rely only on voice tone.

What must never be forgotten is that language does not only come as a set of sounds and organised terms, but that it tells the story of a whole culture, conveys the feelings, frame of mind, pace, habits and codes of a cultural group. And it should be approached as such.


When a person speaks or writes in a language he has not mastered perfectly, he resorts to what is more familiar to him in terms of written and oral expression. He will transpose the structure of his native language and apply it to the other. When seeking for examples, he will refer to his own experience, and depending on the culture he comes from, he might resort to long words, colourful gestures, or convoluted phrase constructions to make himself understood.

To be understood. Think of a person who lands in a new place, and does not know its rules: What she’ll need is a space to express herself and be taken in. Language is the first vehicle to communicate with people when a culture is still unknown, but it takes time to build the ability to use it in a satisfactory way.

As expats, we know all this. We have both been in a new place without knowing its language, and have welcomed dozens of newcomers into our social circles, who could hardly express themselves. We are used to speaking, reading, writing and listening to foreign languages and going beyond the pure meaning of words, because often-times we don’t know the meaning. We encourage people to express themselves freely when they have not mastered a language, because we’ve been there. We have experienced what it means not to be able to express ourselves or to be understood, and we can therefore practice our linguistic empathy.

Linguistic empathy means never to forget that behind a language lies a culture and a human history, that has influenced the outcome of the use of that language. And that if we stop at what we hear with our ears or read with our eyes, we probably miss what the person is trying to say.

Practising linguistic empathy means never saying “I don’t understand, this is not how you say it in English”, but asking oneself where does the person who speaks come from? What could he possibly be wanting to say? What would he tell me in his language, what is he communicating with his body, eyes, posture, or perhaps in the overall content of the article he wrote?

Practising linguistic empathy requires us to always be connected to the whole of our human experience. It means listening and interpreting using all we know about the culture that person comes from, or the particular situation or experience she is going through.

It requires a lot of creativity, warmth, energy and motivation. And a lot of love for human interaction, and of hope for a better world.

 

Claudia Landini
March 2017

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