Cross-cultural differences

Foreign languages always pose a problem. Even when the cultural differences are not that large, already misunderstandings may arise because of improper use. You can feel that on your wooden shoes. The use of language by people in culturally distant countries even more likely will result in funny, awkward cases. Being in South Korea a few caught my eye. In my apartment I have a washing machine. The model name (the brand in most likely LG, since most thinks are by LG) is Chaos. That would not be my first option, not even my 100th. I’m doing my first laundry washing so I am keeping an eye on the machine, especially the program controls are all in South Korean characters.

Yesterday I searched for an ATM accepting global bank cards. It being Saturday late afternoon, all banks were closed and the street ATMs only accepted Korean cards. Luckily I spotted a small convenience store with a global ATM. I went outside to mark the name: Buy the way. Whether this is really a mistake is debatable, since the alternative “By the way” seems strange as well. Maybe it is a creative twist. Further up the road, there was a small restaurant advertising Rear Meat. It’s uncommon to say the least. I would have thought ‘Rare Meat’ .  On the other hand, I am Dutch myself and maybe my English isn’t up to date to judge adequately. And yes, South Korea also has the sports clothing chain store called Athlete’s Foot.

Of course, this is a westerner’s view on Asian use of English. However, there is also the Asian view on westerners use of Asian languages. For instance, Asian characters are popular in tattooing. I hope for those people they are not the laughing stock of Asia, because of some misuse of characters. Lasering these off of the skin seems difficult and painful. Preparing for the blog entry I discoverd that you can earn a living by protecting ignorant westerners for meaningless tattoos!.

To see some more use of English, Asian style, visit If anyone has a similar examples of westerners’ misuse of Asian language characters, please post these in the comments.

Also in academics the use of English undergoes changes. Especially at conferences, talking to colleagues from different countries shows that academic English has many dialects. English is a dominant language in science and understandably not everyone or write can speak the language as fluently as native speakers do.  But sometimes I notice that I use incorrect English to increase mutual understanding. This is obviously a dangerous course of action,or isn’t it? Maybe this is how language evolves. For those that understand the Dutch language, watch the video of two Dutch comedians Koot and De Bie, impersonating a shop owner and a Turkish immigrant. Guess who speaks the Dutch language best…

On a more serious note, these intercultural differences are problematic from a cross-national comparative research project. Validity here is at stake, although progress has been made. See for example Harkness et al.’s Cross-Cultural Survey Methods published by Wiley. Mmm, succeeded to slip something scientific into this blog entry after all…

Note: the expression “You can feel that on your wooden shoes” is a literal translation of “Dat voel je op je klompen aan”. It means that something is very obvious.

Note 2 (11/11/2009): on English language skills, our first lady in Dutch rock, Anouk, has a new ‘video’ with only the lyrics. The song is good, but the lyrics are dreadful. This shows many people think English is easy, but it snot (pun intended).

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Maurice Vergeer

I am Maurice Vergeer, working at Communication Science department of the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.