In my last article, I discussed how language affects how you think and can be leveraged to understand cognitive diversity to find innovative solutions and discoveries in business. Now, I am here to discuss language again, but in a different way. Language is a prized possession in the cultural treasure box. Every culture has its own slang, analogies and sayings which are unique and don’t always translate into other languages. In French, a saying meaning I have fainted is “tomber dans les pommes.” literally meaning “falling in the apples”. Additionally, several Asian languages don’t have a direct translation for Diversity and Inclusion, which raises two questions. One, is DEI another Western construction imposed on the East? Two, why is cross cultural literacy under emphasised when we train and develop people across cultures in the current globalised setting?
Capture the mood
Language can also capture a particular feeling, mood or world. To translate this mood is difficult, it is hard to capture a sentiment, that’s why translators need to understand both languages in all their complexities and nuances. Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, and in particular the book Whereabouts or Dove mi trovo seems to encapsulate this idea well. In her interview with The Guardian she discusses her international identity and how language fits into this. Lahiri was born in London, to Indian immigrant parents and moved to the US when she was two with her family. The three languages Lahiri uses are English, Benghali and now, Italian. Lahiri discusses her relationship to Benghali and English here:
“There was always ‘the other place’ and ‘the other language’ and ‘the other world’.” Bengali, which she spoke until she was four, is both her mother tongue and “a foreign language”, because she can’t read or write it: it is her parents’ language, “the language of their world”. Lahiri and her sister were educated in English, which she came to regard as a bullying “stepmother”. ”
Italian for the author is a way to enter a new world, “a new life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being” she says. She explains that she was no longer caught between two languages, which freed her from fighting against two identities. As she puts it “having to choose between two ways of being, two ways of thinking”. Instead, speaking Italian gave her a sense of belonging, even though she did not belong in a nationalistic sense, but through another, perhaps linguistic sense.
As an American, who immigrated from India when I was 8 with my parents, I can feel a lot of parallels with the author. I have recently picked up Hindi again, which I learned in my Catholic English school in Mumbai until I moved to the USA. I am not fluent in Hindi in any way, but want to be. My second mother-tongue language was Spanish, since I grew up in Miami, along with English as my first. Language, cultural belonging and belonging are inherently linked together. It can often provide an inside-track to living in a new place, a welcoming smile usually will be met when a foreigner speaks the native language. At the same time, if you are from a country and don’t speak the language, it is often seen as strange.
The idea that the book explores the city becoming an urban solstice, a new relationship to become immersed in, is relevant to today’s multicultural world. As the article by Lisa Allardice says “This is a book about belonging and not belonging, place and displacement — questions of identity that Lahiri has explored throughout her fiction,”. Living in London now, one of my favorite things is that everyone is different from one another, everyone is a type of outsider living on top of one another. So, being an outsider is normal here. I relate to the author when she says the “conflict between feelings of being “rooted and rootless” applies to everybody.”, this is the product of a globalised world.
Language has a powerful hold over us culturally, it has the ability to make us feel a sense of belonging or not. A sense of being fake, when we don’t wholly belong or a sense of wholeness when we resonate with the language. Lahhiri put it this way, “When I first started writing in English I felt like an interloper. When I first started writing in Italian I felt like an interloper. When I was writing the poems I felt like an interloper. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.” This statement is emotionally driven, language has the effect of moving us, creating our place in a culture and the world.
Gulnar Vaswani is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, thought–leader, board advisor and executive coach to CEOs. Social scientist meets spiritual warrior, Gulnar is re-imagining leadership for the 21st century. Her latest initiative, GPS GO, is a unique program empowering millennials to find their inner coordinates and harness their leadership abilities, with the larger social dynamics in mind. Follow GPS GO on Instagram (gps_go_) for mindful musings and updates!