I met an interesting woman the other day, founder and owner of Workforce Language Services, who has a PhD in Linguistics and Anthropology. We were talking about the ongoing challenge as practitioners to prove the business case for diversity, and she told me about a language training project she had done for a client in the fast-food industry.
She designed a curriculum for the mostly non-native English speaking front-line staff having to do with work specific language: What’s a smidgeon? What’s “not too spicy.” How about “just a teeny bit?” or “gimme gobs.” This training around understanding colloquial terms related to this product did wonders for line productivity as well as employee morale and customer satisfaction, as employees and customers could better relate to each other across this critical line of service delivery.
When my husband and I first met 22 years ago, he had less than a year of English under his belt. He used to get upset that I didn’t correct every word as he spoke it, to help better his English. But in communicating in a language other than your own, words are just icons. I know that “amor” means “love” in Portuguese, because someone told me, or I read it in a book. But when I say “amor,” does it mean we’ll live happily every after, or that I “amor” you just as I love my Great Aunt Gertrude on my mother’s side once removed? It completely depends on who is saying it and what he or she has experienced in life up to that particular moment. And that is true whether both are native English speakers, or Chinese or Spanish or sign language.
Once clarified, for me and my then boyfriend, it meant that I had become more important to him than his truck, and my affection for him had surpassed my love of chocolate chip cookies. With my son, I now know a “dab” more ice cream means a lot more to him than to me.
Have you ever been making a brilliant argument with someone and he or she gets caught up on a particular word you have said and it throws off the whole conversation? How about Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton during the primary debates? What would happen if you stopped and defined your use of the term: “When I say ‘partnership’ this is what it looks like…what does that word mean for you?” Have you had an opportunity where you wish you had done that? When have you done it and succeeded?