Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Communication – Book Review

Author: Michael Agar
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN 13: 978-0688149499

Reviewed by Carol Orwig, Centre for Linguistics, Translation and Literacy. Module Coordinator for Language and Culture Acquisition.

This book may seem a strange choice for a review as it is hardly new – having been first published in 1994. I chose it, however, because it depicts in such an interesting and accessible way the complex and important task of learning to communicate with people from a different culture, in a different language.

As Agar says, most people think that communication difficulties can be solved by language instruction. Surely if more policemen in the United States spoke Spanish, or if we provided free English lessons to immigrants, it would solve the communication problems between these groups. Agar notes:

The (Washington) Post and most everybody else, assumes that language instruction would solve the problem. The Post and most everybody else is wrong. The majority think language is mostly grammar. Teach people the grammar, give them a dictionary, and they’ll communicate. But anyone who’s studied a second language in the classroom and then tried to use it in the real world knows better than that.

Language Shock explores and explains more about the frames of reference people use in real- life communication: the expectations of what people will do, all the assumed knowledge needed to interpret language and behavior correctly. It also talks about the changes that occur in the learner, in the person who is learning to bridge these different worlds of culture through communication.

Our goal in the Language and Culture Communication course is to do just that: to help people build bridges between different worlds by becoming aware of their own cultural values and the assumptions they bring to any conversation. It helps that our students usually come from a variety of different cultures, so they can learn a lot from the interaction with each other, if we set up the learning activities in a helpful way.

To return to the book, Agar talks about the tendency for linguists to draw a circle around language and to talk about the sounds, the grammar within the circle. Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist did that. His theories involved describing what an “ideal speaker-listener” would do. Here is an excerpt from the first page of his book Aspects of the Theory of Syntax:

Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogenous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically-irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language to actual performance.

I am not sure I know anyone like that, and this view of language and linguistics is not helpful to me in preparing people for the messy business of real-life cross-cultural living, communication, relationship and ministry. Agar’s book is helpful, because it describes both the complexity of the situation people find themselves in, some of the reasons for lack of communication, and also gives some tools and strategies for approaching the task of broaching the gap. He gives stories from his own experiences primarily in Austria and Mexico, but also many examples of miscommunications among people within his own country. He talks about what the mindset is of an immigrant, and how this needs to be different from someone on a package-tour, where one holds the host culture at a safe distance.

In a Bible college such as Redcliffe, we are all involved in cross-cultural communication at various levels. Not only are there students, faculty and staff from many countries, the very nature of Biblical study is a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic venture. Agar’s book gives concepts which can be usefully applied to understanding the Bible and the conversations and interactions in it as well as to understanding conversations in the dining-room. These include the concept of cultural frames, the idea of “rich points” (those areas in which miscommunication occurs) and how we can learn specifically from those points at which our own frame doesn’t fit the other person’s frame. I recommend Language Shock to all interested in expanding their own frames of references so to understand not only “What did he say?”, but also “What did he mean?” and “What is going on here?.”

Please Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Redcliffe College.

Return to Issue 46.

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