Nuance and context in communication. Cultural perspectives in the language of learning.

It’s remarkably easy to make mistakes in spoken or written English. Speaking as someone for who (for whom?) the endless days of pronouns and subjunctive clauses are but distant memories of endless summer days spent staring out of the window waiting for the endless school holidays, it’s easy to make technical mistakes. But it’s not the technical mistakes that i’m thinking about here. It’s the nuances and details that give away whether you’re a native speaker, or someone with a very good technical understanding.

My great aunt is German, and forever making photographs. Where i would ‘take’ them, she ‘makes’ them. We both understand each other perfectly, and there’s nothing wrong with her grammar, indeed, i suspect she would give me more than a run for my money, but still there is something about her phrasing in this instance that stands out.

Out walking with some Dutch friends last week, one of them said they felt rosy. It’s a perfectly good expression, and indeed, i might say to someone that they have rosy cheeks, but it’s an unusual phrasing to say you feel rosy. It’s a charming expression, but feels faintly archaic in English, whilst in Dutch, it’s perfectly normal.

These nuances and phrases, the colour and texture of communication, are not only specific to different languages, they vary within a country dependent upon region or dialect. My glaswegian colleague calls everyone ‘dear’, something that would sound most peculiar if i tried it myself.

There used to be a time when people built houses out of local materials. If you lived in the forests of the Home Counties, you’d build timber framed houses, with thatched roofs, whilst if you lived in stony Sussex, you might use flint and lime mortar. Nobody would go to the trouble of carting wood to a stony area to build a house, because the roads were poor and it took a long time with a donkey.

Then the railways arrived, allowing the easy and cost effective transport of raw and processed materials, alongside the industrialisation of production, meaning that suddenly it was cost effective to make bricks in Kent and train them to Wales. Suddenly the architectural language of the country changed. Rafts of houses sprung up to identical designs with identical materials around the country. Council houses of red brick and cheap tiles proliferated, dumbing down the visual beauty of villages and towns and bringing indoor toilets and graffiti to the masses.

Whilst bulk transport and industry bought reduced costs and increased benefits to the masses, it did lead to a blandness of design and build and a loss of regional variation.

Our languages are similarly under pressure now. The desire to create ‘global’ solutions, the ubiquity of English as the language of the internet and the absolute domination of spelling and grammar checkers are ironing out diversity and variation. Whilst we used to have regional and national variation and divergence, it’s now seen as provincial: at best charming, at worst, stupid. Indeed, we’ve gone one step further, with one insurance company now advertising Yorkshire call centres and scripting their advisors to talk about having a cuppa and dry stone walling. Quite how we got to a place where we started to ridicule Indian call centres for their inability to understand the importance of talking about the weather, or, worse, actually trying to have a conversation about the weather, to where we celebrate the ability of the Yorkshireman to talk about tea, i don’t know.

But beneath this, there is a serious point. Clearly people are more comfortable with the artificial Yorkshire hospitality, corporate and scripted as it may be, than with the Indian call centre and their efforts to establish rapport. But what about the impacts for creating global learning solutions? How far do we regionalise and nuance our scripts and approaches?

Is everything to be delivered in received pronunciation, like a 60’s radio show, or should we be regionalising everything and, if so, on what criteria? Should we hire a Yorkshireman to deliver the videos because we cynically feel that it will sound more homely? And how about when we go for translations. Should we vary scripts to ensure that in English we take photographs, whilst the Germans are free to make them whilst walking rosy cheeked across Europe?

Certainly an approach that allows for regional variation is appealing, and popular with learners, although bringing as it does an increased overhead of production and version control, it’s not popular with budget holders.

There must be a middle ground, one which allows us to work globally, but avoid the delivery of identikit, bland transliterated solutions. There must be a way of including regional and national flavour and texture whilst meeting the corporate governance needs of compliance and sign off. There must be a way of doing it without resorting to blunt stereotypes of talking about the tea and the weather.

There must be, but we struggle to find it quite often. Whilst the internet is an amazing technology for facilitating access to information, we do run the serious risk of homogenising our output too far. It’s not a question to which i have an answer. I feel certain that sometimes we’ve done things well, allowing different regions to take a base script and make it their own, although more often than not, we are too excited about our ability to deliver globally to think about what impact the materials have.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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4 Responses to Nuance and context in communication. Cultural perspectives in the language of learning.

  1. James Ellerton says:

    Julian – your blog got me thinking – it got me thinking about the middle ground – the ‘Global middle ground’ to be precise and whether or not there’s an answer to it.
    To be honest – having thought about this for quite a bit now – I’m not too sure about the whole Global Middle ground thing… I mean – does there have to be a middle ground? I might be interpreting this just a little too literally but ‘Middle ground – for me at least – comes perilously close to ‘mediocrity’ or ‘sitting on the fence’

    Surely the catalyst for creating engaging and inspiring learning in the first instance is to ensure that your delivery method resonates or ‘clicks’ with the audience you are aiming at. By that I mean the architecture you create is designed in a way that a) makes logical sense and b) engages the user in terms of navigation and availability of content. (I know, I know – here beginneth the lesson on sucking eggs) But we all know this to be true (Don’t we?)

    Once you’ve got the architecture cracked you can start looking at the content and in doing so ensure that the pedagogy you ascribe to the project is based as closely as possible to suit the learners you are directing the learning at – be they from Manchester or Mars.
    The point I’m trying to make here (and I may be barking up the wrong learning tree) is that cultural norms have a huge impact on the way a person is likely to approach, learn and retain information. With the best will in the world (and leaving aside the stereotyping I’m about to embrace) Gavin from Salford who’s just been asked to do an on-line course in Driving theory is going to approach, undertake and complete this task in an entirely different manner than perhaps Serge from Belarus is (not least as he’s used to driving on the other side of the road!)
    I know this is a rather poor analogy but it does at least underline the tenet of the point. You can’t hope to have a one size fits all policy for a global solution – nor in my opinion should you ever try to.
    Take the good old Yorkshire accent telephone operators as another example – I think (and I would think this being a Yorkshire man) that the Yorkshire accent is both endearing, smooth and dare I say it even slightly sexy (Nell McAndrew / Sean bean – I mean come on!) and I can see why the electricity companies use it (they did it with the Scottish accent too) Many people in the UK may find the dulcet tones of Sean Bean or Jeff Boycott more conducive than let’s say the lovely Cat Dealy or Jasper Carrot (apologies to any Brummies out there) – but that’s because these celebrities and their accents make up part of their cultural norm – for good or for bad – and it’s far easier for a caller to accept a comment from a Yorkshire phone operator about a nice cuppa – or dry stone walling for that matter – than it is for a equally educated and clearly spoken phone operator from Bangladesh to ask about the weather. It’s not because it’s not a polite thing to ask – it’s just that at a cultural level it doesn’t ring true. It Jarres with people instinctively because they know the person is halfway around the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter how well the telephone operators script has been written – if the person delivering that information doesn’t understand the cultural norm – doesn’t actually connect with the person they’re talking to – there’s absolutely no point in the conversation taking place. Fix the callers problem – sure. Be polite and friendly – absolutely – but please don’t pretend that you know that a ‘kiss me quick’ hat comes from Blackpool or that jellied eels are a cockneys favourite food – you’ll get very short shrift every time.

    You can take the telephone analogy even further – (Oh god no I hear you cry) but you really can. The telephone delivers the information from the call centre. It’s a good way to communicate, it does the job – the ARCHITECHURE is good – in fact you could go as far as saying its a global success. But you still need to know how to communicate on phone correctly in order to effectively get your point across. You need to speak in the correct language, call at an appropriate time and – if you want to ‘sell’ what your saying convincingly – communicate in a way that engages the listener and embraces their cultural norms – in other words to be really successful in delivering your message you need to clearly understand the connotation and denotation associated with the language you’re using.

    The same thing applies when developing learning for a virtual environment

    You may be able to come up with some super zappy architecture that appeals to a broad cross section of the global population – and top marks if you achieve it. But as far as I’m concerned the content – the pedagogy – of your learning experience HAS to fit your desired audience EVERY time – otherwise you’re failing to deliver what you promise.
    Alright – I agree it’s a rather utopian view to take – and wouldn’t it be nice if we all had the time and the money to do just that – but it’s what I think we should aim at. After all aren’t we (the royal we – being the smart -arsed developers and creative thinkers) – aren’t we paid to do that anyway? We’re the ones who are supposed to have the answers to the questions our clients throw at us.
    So I’m not convinced there is a global middle ground here – Perhaps in the architecture of learning technologies – and I say perhaps because learning styles also dictate architecture – but not (in my book at least) in terms of the pedagogy or ‘strategy of instruction’ that’s used to populate the architecture that delivers the information.
    Every job is different – and every job requires research and insight into the demographic you’re trying to reach and the cultural norms associated with that demographic.. The global middle ground – while a potentially prosperous place to be – would I fear leave many learners with half an experience.

    As they say in Yorkshire – ‘There’s nowt as queer as folk’ and if you don’t have a good understanding of you’ folk’ – you’re knackered before you begin.

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