Cultural letter #12 Communication


Dear friends,


I promised another cultural letter.  I had previously written a cultural letter on miscommunication and never sent seemed like as soon as I was about to send it, something happened and I was afraid that someone might think I was writing about them, so  I didn't send it lest I cause some ruffled feathers. :)


Since then, I've decided to explore the idea of communication in at least two letters.


I'd like to delve into the idea of words and language in this letter.


First of all, words are only as strong in meaning as that language makes them. By that I mean, a "chma"  (spelled differently, of course), is a "moth" to a Polish child because that's what his mom taught him it meant.  To you, it sounds like you are almost spitting out something bad tasting.  We learn what things mean, at least in our native language, very naturally, as we are taught at home by our parents what to say, how to say it, and what is good, bad, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad grammar, etc.  We learn when to use a slightly stronger word...we've laughed as our kids went through stages when they used the strongest possible word....for example, she wasn't just "tired, she was "exhausted", she wasn't just "upset", she was "mad". 


When a person learns another language, a word that you don't know means nothing to you.  "Bad words" mean nothing. For someone like me...I never studied "bad or curse" words in Polish, and thus, while I recognize God's name in vain, now, there was a time, when I didn't even recognize that. Other "derogative" or "vulgar" language goes right over my head.  There have been times when I did something another driver didn't like and he yelled at me as he went around me.  Of course, the only thing I understood about that was that he was unhappy with me, as I hadn't a clue as to the exact words he said.  I felt like retorting that he was wasting his breath, but he was long gone before I got over the actual shock that he was so rude. :)  (Overall, I'm a pretty nonaggressive driver, so to have someone mad at me about my driving usually takes me back a little bit.) If I had heard the words, I doubt I would have understood them, anyway.


Today a woman came over and was exploding about her relatives.  I had another girl here (Violet) who speaks both Polish and English and when I told her I understood only about 40% of what the other woman was saying, she said it was probably better that way. :) I understood she was upset and with whom she was upset and about what, but not the exact words...even she said she would say things "delicately" for my kids' sake...:)  I smiled and told her I doubted that they would understand anyway...I figured if I didn't understand what she was talking about, and I was trying to understand, my kids who were over at the table, working on their schoolwork, and basically uninterested wouldn't understand.  (I was right.) 


Yesterday I was at the dentist and he loves practicing his English on me and he told me "s..... happens." (in English)  I was in shock.  I had never heard a doctor or dentist in the states talk that way to me--especially as nice as this one is...a quite cultured type person.  Then, I realized, that to him, words like that word, just don't have the effect on him that they do on us.  My husband and another missionary, Ken, a few years back, were visiting another preacher and this preacher asked them what does _____ mean?  Mike and Ken just swallowed hard and looked at other...and didn't really want to talk about it.  (I can't remember the exact word or phrase--but I think Mike still does--, but it isn't something one Christian would be discussing with another.)  We realize that to these people, an English "swear word" or "bad word" is about as meaningless as to us, a Polish one is. 


I am especially frustrated when I've heard children come into my house who don't speak English and start using "Oh God" as an expression.  I know that they've heard it on tv, because they don't even speak English, and yet use the English version of taking God's name in vain.  (It's actually been quite a while since I've heard that one, since I clamped down on that one pretty fast.)  When I realized what I was hearing when I was hearing kids in our house using God's name in vain in Polish...I came down on that, too, but this is so ingrained in them, that it seems to be taking forever.  Now, maybe you caught my expression, "when I realized what I was hearing."  When you hear something in a language that isn't your native tongue, esp. in the process of learning it,  it often takes a while for things to filter down from the "hearing" state to the "comprehension" state.  So, while I may "hear" something, that doesn't always translate into a complete comprehension of what I heard--sometimes it takes a few seconds, sometimes a minute later I realize what all I heard, and sometimes I still don't comprehend it all! :)


There is the idea of "denotated" meaning and "connotated" meaning.  Denotated meaning is the dictionary definition of a word; "connotation" means more of what it means in that context, or how it is commonly used.  Let me explain.  A Polish person who is strictly going by denotation may put together a sentence like this, "The exploitation of the car was too expensive."   Since the dictionary definition of exploit has to do with usage, and they DO use exploit in this sense in Polish, it would only be logical that they would do this. HOWEVER, in English, we "exploit" people, but not cars or machines.  The first time I heard the "exploitation" of a car over here wasn't all that long ago and I laughed at the idea of exploiting a car...but it doesn't have a negative connotation over here at simply means "usage". To "exploit" in English has to do with "using people" and I've always heard it in a very negative sense--usually factory workers, foreigners or women. To "exploit" in Polish simply means to use and from what I've seen, often refers to cost of using it, including gas mileage, kilowatts, etc.


We can, in our efforts to learn Polish, put together sentences that end up being either quite funny or else not quite what we intended.  For example, we can say in English "I am cold."  But, if I say in Polish "I am cold", literally translated, it has a meaning other than "the temperature is too low for me to be comfortable."  So, for me to mean that, I need to say, literally translated, "It is cold to me."  So, there can be some embarrassing moments, esp. if no one tells you that you are saying things wrong.  Obviously textbooks don't cover all the bases--we need people close by to let us know, gently, when we've goofed (and hopefully in private, if it is embarrassing.). 


In these cases, I'm not even talking about a slip of a letter or a mess up of the grammar...I'm talking about, "We don't say it that way."  I'm sure it is this way in every language.


That's all for now. I'm tired and I've think you're probably tired of reading by now.


Goodnight and 'bye for now,

Becky in Poland