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Language vs. Attitude

From the series Effective Language and Culture Acquisition


After half a century of living and working in Taiwan and mainland China, I think I can safely make the following observation. As a general rule, a person’s effectiveness in a foreign environment is directly proportional to his/her ability in the language and attitude toward the culture. Ideally, the person should have native-speaker proficiency and unconditional acceptance of people, regardless of the culture.

But there’s a problem. Rules almost always have exceptions and ideals are almost never realized. Some people may be fluent in the language, but never really fit into the culture. Likewise, there are those who love people, no matter what, but just can’t get a handle on the language.

That raises a hypothetical question. Which is more important, good attitude or language ability? I think the reader knows the answer.

Back in the mid-1960s my wife and I had recently arrived in Taiwan and were beginning Mandarin language studies. We were the only non-Chinese in a neighborhood near downtown Taipei. I had met our next-door neighbor, Mr. Zhang, but didn’t know anyone else in the area.

One pleasant evening I saw Mr. Zhang sitting on his front steps and decided it might be a good time to get better acquainted. He smiled and welcomed me to sit down and chat. Between his halting English and my entry-level Chinese, we managed to have a conversation, neighbor to neighbor. I’ll never forget one thing he said:

You know, the whole world stands or falls on American foreign aid. Everybody needs America, but America has few friends in the world. It’s as if America just tosses out material aid, thinking that this will buy friends. But no beggar loves his benefactor.

But look at you and me. We’re just sitting here enjoying the cool of the evening. You’re not better than I am and I’m not better than you. We can say anything we want to each other because we’re friends. If Americans would just sit down as friends and know people as equals. America would have friends all over the world, and America wouldn’t even have to give foreign aid to buy any country’s friendship!

Well, maybe it isn’t quite that simple, but there’s a certain truth in what Mr. Zhang said. The right attitude is essential.

By the beginning of our second year in language school, we had no trouble using every-day Mandarin to function in the Chinese environment and I was beginning to give public speeches and lectures without any reference to English. We also had a new classmate.

Nate was a PhD candidate from a top-ranked American university. His field was Classical Chinese Literature. He had Chinese vocabulary that outstripped some of our Chinese teachers and his Chinese writing was like calligraphy. He was just taking a few weeks of classes to hone his Mandarin before plunging into research for his dissertation.

But there were a couple of problems. He knew Classical Chinese but couldn’t converse in everyday Mandarin. Someone told us that he had gotten on a city bus and tried to buy a ticket, but the ticket seller couldn’t understand a word he said. His frustration boiled over in an ugly scene.

I was Nate’s other problem. From the get-go, he looked down on me. After all, he was on his way to getting a PhD from an elite university after years of study. I, in contrast, only had a Bachelor’s degree from a no-name college, and had only studied Mandarin for a year. That was bad enough, but the clincher was that I had some fluency in Chinese and Nate often had to ask me for help. He barely tolerated me.

What a pity! With a rich background in language, Nate had potential for communication on a high level, but his elitist attitude kept him from establishing relationships.

A take-away from the above is that unconditional acceptance of people and fluency in language are keys to effectiveness in a cross-cultural, cross-linguistic environment. Attitude and language. Of these two, ability in language is important, but unconditional acceptance of people is essential. I think this is self-evident.

What may not be so evident is an observation that numerous linguists have made, namely, that retention of first language (L1) accent in a second language (L2) is often a subconscious signal that the speaker does not want to fully identify with the L2 culture, for whatever reason. It may reflect an attitude of superiority of his/her native culture over the target culture. It may result from his/her reluctance to fully identify with and participate in the L2 culture. It may be because the language learner simply has insufficient opportunity to work at mastering L2.

For my PhD program, I had to qualify in two foreign languages. I was already fluent in Chinese, complete with native speaker (NS) accent. My faculty advisers suggested that French would be a good choice for my second foreign language (L3). Accordingly, for about 18 months I worked diligently on acquiring French.

But things did not go well, primarily because I had a bad attitude. In a word, I did not like French. I didn’t know any French speakers, wasn’t attracted to French culture or history, and had no desire to make French a part of my life. I never did master the French [r], and every time I encountered the French particle [de], I lapsed into Chinese, since there is a similar particle in Mandarin. I took the qualifying exam three times before I passed—just barely. I not only have a foreign accent in French, but I am sure that my communicative ability in general would not be good if I were to go to France.

My suggestion: If you intend to live and work in China, France, or wherever, check your attitude. With an attitude of acceptance, participation, immersion, you will not only develop meaningful relationships, but language acquisition will be enhanced.

Image credit: Mark Newland

Mark Newland

Mark Newland (pseudonym) lived in Taiwan for a decade and since then has lived and worked for extended periods in the People's Republic of China. His PhD is in General Linguistics, reflecting his deep interest in language and culture. He has been involved in a wide variety of pursuits in... View Full Bio


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