Multiculturalism: You Need to Know the Language

    May 18, 2003

“How did you know what she meant?” a client asked me the other day, as we processed a joint conversation we’d had with someone from Venezuela. “What did he mean when he said.”

Years ago a good education was considered to include taking Latin, and I was lucky enough to be around at that time. I took 4 years of Latin in high school, and went on to study French, Greek and Spanish.

Latin is the basis of all the “romance languages” which are the languages of a large segment of the cultures I deal with on a regular basis: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. Most of our medical terms are Greek, as well as many words we use daily.

It has also been said that you don’t know your own language until you’ve studied another language.

Why is it so important to understand another language in today’s multicultural world?

Because one of the greatest conveyors of a culture is their language – how they say things – and someone speaking a second language will tend to use it as they would their own, just with different words.


My now-deceased friend, Sam, who was a pediatrician in south Texas, down in what’s called “the Valley” which has a large Latino population, told me this story.

He was the only pediatrician for a 200-mile radius down where the stars at night are big and bright. It’s the Rio Grande Valley, where they grow all those grapefruits and oranges and there are a lot of migrant workers.

“When,” as he said, “another Mexican had piled 10 children in the back of their pickup truck and then littered the highway with them.” – this is strong language, and you must understand the position of the pediatrician. We will use our empathy (an EQ competency) here.

Sam was the children’s doctor, and cared passionately for the lives of children. It was his life. He was the children’s advocate, and he saw every day horrible things happen to children because of parental neglect and abuse. Sam was FOR the children of the world and anyone, of any color, race, religion or creed, who caused a child to be harmed, was his enemy.

When there had been yet another crash involving children in the back of a pickup truck, which is now against the law in Texas, he would be called to any of the neighboring ERs to try and help with the babies.

There used to be the saying in south Texas “there are few wrecks, but when there is one, it is fatal.” The roads stretch out flat, for miles, an engineer’s dream, and there didn’t used to be a speed limit in Texas. People would fly down these roads at 80, 90, 100 miles an hour and when a rare intersection came, they weren’t always prepared to stop. And people would put their children in the back of the pickup truck, just riding free, sitting on boxes or crates, when they had to go somewhere.

When Sam would arrive at the hospital, often in the middle of the night, having driven 100 miles, the emergency room would be full of the dead and the dying (“carnage,” he called it) and he would get busy sticking tubes into tiny veins. He often talked about how hard it was to fix up an IV for a premie, and he was proud of his skill at it.

“I’ve had way too much practice,” he would say, and he would show me how he did it, with his gentle hands. I never saw Sam walk into a room with a baby in it, without going over and picking the infant up. Just to play.

Sam continued, “I thought the Mexicans were horrible, because when they were in the ER all they did was talk about themselves while their children were dying. They kept saying ‘mi vida, mi vida,’ – ‘save my life.’ ”

The literal translation of “mi vida” is “my life.”

Finally one day he talked with a Latino about this, and only then did he learn that, as they lay dying, they were calling out for their children, who were their life. “Mi vida, my child, my life.”

I think he spent the later years of his life working through that multicultural misunderstanding, continuing to study the Spanish language and culture. He became, he said, an *aficionado. He participated in conversation classes for years, and helped others learn Spanish. And he would tell people this story, urging them to learn and understand.

We have so much to learn. Where do we start? Sam would say, “learn the language.”

*Aficianado – from the Spanish, a person who likes, knows about, and appreciates a usually fervently pursued interest or activity

Susan Dunn, MA, Marketing Coach, Marketing consultation,
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