Lost in Translation

Language learning concept with a message in a bottle "Can't spea
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Have you ever seen the movie Lost in Translation?  The main character, played by Bill Murray, has some strange experiences while working in Japan.  The situation seems almost surreal to someone who has not experienced Japan.  However, if you’ve ever lived there, what happens to him is not all that extraordinary.  After having been exposed to a bit of Japanese culture, what happens to him seems closer to everyday life.  Culture has a big impact on our activities and our perceptions of what is happening.  How much impact, then, does culture have on something as integral as communication?

It is very difficult to teach Canadian communication norms.  Most people who have been raised in Canada aren’t even aware that the language structures they use may carry a different meaning when literally translated, simply because the meaning of the expression has been internalized.  Often we think our expressions are logical.  For example, a friend and I were discussing a recipe.  Her first language is French and mine is English, which led us to view the expression for a level cup of flour in different ways.

To her, the expression rasée seemed logical, whereas I had to take a metaphorical leap from shaved (the literal translation of rasée) to smooth, and then correlate smooth with the English expression level. I had to jump through a few hoops to work it out.  What really made our different perceptions of what is logical jump out at me was her comment, “English is crazy!”  To her, the French word rasée symbolized the meaning of level more directly than the English word level.

The confusion behind what is considered more logical may be attributed to the fact that we are comparing two different languages.  However, there can be a similar effect between two English speaking cultures.  While in Japan, I was quite often asked by my Australian colleagues, “How you going?”  They didn’t want to know if I was taking the train, riding my bike, or walking.  They actually were asking me how I was.  The expression seemed strange to me because I had been acculturated to ask, “How’s it going?” or “How you doing?”

The point is that what seems natural and logical to one person from a particular culture (or who speaks a particular language) might need a little explanation for someone from a different background.  We need to keep in mind that there is a lot of nuance in what we say.  Expressions with underlying meaning can be difficult to understand without experience.  Language learners need to learn the hidden meanings to make their path to success smoother.

Wouldn’t it be easier for newcomers if they understood the unwritten rules of Canadian culture?  This would be especially helpful if they understood what not to do, or what communication strategies have a negative impact on their chances of being successful.

If an individual has a high level of English language skill, but has never been exposed to Canadian culture, can this individual be successful in Canada?  What has been your experience?

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. I like the issue is being discussed in this article.
    Newcomers are spending a lot of time blending into the Canadian culture.
    Unwritten rules are faced up in every line of life and that’s why it is so important to have in every school a discussion hour, debate team or – really exercising a communicative approach while teaching.
    All these unwritten rules then will reveal themselves in the process of speaking and discussing different customs, traditions and habits.
    I think it is a good idea to invite various people for presentations to ESL lessons in order students will hear a few accent variations and some other ways of speaking.

    1. Hi Tatiana,
      I agree with your suggestions! One of the difficult things about these “unwritten rules” is that most of the time the people who have been raised in the culture aren’t even aware of what they do. Usually people only notice when the “unwritten rules” are broken. It really takes a long time to figure it all out. However, talking about these issues can create awareness.

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