How Language Can Be a Form of Cultural Diplomacy

Knowing a Language Can Offer a Deeper Understanding of Culture

June 10th, 2016

The Tower of Babel is a good example illustrating why knowing several languages can be an important tool for cultural diplomacy. 

Learning a language is often seen to be a rewarding experience. However, this can be due not only to the satisfaction of being able to speak another language in itself, but also because it opens doors when conversing with native speakers. Even on a small scale, when going on holiday to a country of which you are learning the language, trying to speak to locals in their own language can often be an incredible positive experience. Also, on a diplomatic level, knowing another language can promote communication and understanding. For example, ambassadors working in a country different from their own usually speak several languages acting like diplomatic glue between their home country and the country they are working in.

How is it possible though that language can have such diplomatic power? In terms of Cultural Diplomacy, language is inextricably linked to culture. When learning a language, you are not just learning a combination of speech and grammar, but also the culture associated with it. As Krober (1923) says: “Culture, then, began when speech was present, and from then on, the enrichment of either means the further development of the other”. Meaning that culture and language have been mutually constituting each other since the first appearance of what we call “language”.

So what is language? From a practical perspective, it is a structure that has to do with sounds, symbols and gestures that a social group uses for communication. On a much deeper level though, language is an expression of identity. Language evolves in a cultural environment, with culture referring to “dynamic social systems and shared patterns of behaviour, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and values” (SIL). The implications are that people speaking different languages often have different ways of seeing and interpreting the world. As for example, in many European cultures, a ‘good day’ is equivalent to a sunny day, but in several African countries a ‘good day’ is a rainy day. Another example of cultural differences reflected in language is the expression of spatial orientation in some indigenous tribes who say, for example, north, south, east and west, instead of left and right. As a consequence these people have a much stronger sense of orientation than we do.

Therefore learning a language and understanding the cultural background can be a powerful diplomatic tool as it offers understanding and a way of communicating within the same framework as another person. Especially nowadays, in a world with increasing intercultural communication, the ability to speak several languages is a crucial skill to have on a diplomatic level in order to avoid misunderstandings.



Cultural Diplomacy News
Dominique Schmutzer, CD News Team