What is Language? Humans are social creatures who have the innate sense of belonging. We use language in order to communicate and socialize with the people around us. People use language to adapt to the world, as with the “Emergent perspective,” children in their early years have the ability to retain and learn a language quickly. Each and every individual of us have experienced language ever since we have set foot in this world, experiencing the many forms of language either through movement, sound, and even touch.
Being a quarter Japanese and a three-quarter Taiwanese but born in Hawaii, I have felt that most of my childhood had consisted of Japanese, English, and Chinese. From preschool to secondary school, I was surrounded by people from different parts of the world from Germany, Korea, India, Australia, and much more, with a diverse environment. The English language was a tool for communication in an international culture. Although outside of school, I was surrounded by people who were from a Chinese speaking culture. My mother and Taiwanese family would speak to me in Chinese, and I would acquire listening comprehension of the Chinese language. However, I never took classes in Chinese and had rarely used it to communicate. Even with my parents, such as my Taiwanese mother, and father, who studied in Taiwan during his university years.
My mother always said the word “加油” (Jiāyóu) or “good luck” in English translation, every time I was about to take a test or completing assessments. The direct translation of the Kanji is to “加” (Jiā), “add,” and “油” (yóu), “oil,” in the sense that, you add more oil for more power (“力”) and energy. Although as a faith perspective, I interpreted the kanji as “Encourage others with your mouth and pour the oil of God.” (口で励まし、神の油を注ぐ）My understanding and perception of this kanji are modified because of my faith, and hence, language can be interpreted differently depending on people and their background. Despite my limited literacy in Chinese, I could see how this would be different in Japanese, as the Kanji would have different components and radicals and so the interpretation would change. The Japanese kanji would be “頑張って” (Gambatte) and you could see it seems like a completely new language.
Body language is another component part of my experience with inter-cultural communication. Instinctively, we use body language every day of our lives. Whether giving a thumbs up to say “good” or “okay,” and even how you carried yourself through your postures and facial expression, this seems natural for us to do. At my church, we use sign languages through our worships. Sign language was like storytelling. The sign language word for ‘Jesus’ is pointing your right finger on the inside of your middle left palm and vice versa. This was indicative of how Jesus was nailed on both of his hands on the cross. The word for “love” was having both your hands into fists and arms across the chest, giving an impression of protection, like love.
Another inter-cultural communication experience I experienced was when The Epic Arts team from Cambodia came to visit the school. The Epic Arts is an organization that brings people with and without disabilities together through the arts. Besides their performance at the auditorium and the senior graduation, they had planned an hour-long dance workshop with the students. During the introduction of the workshop, the team had introduced themselves but using sign language. It felt like a new experience, existing in a place and time with people from another country, culture, and lifestyle. There was only a warm and positive atmosphere, despite the unfamiliarity of language, and the language barrier. They say that sports are the universal language, but I would say that smiles and laughter would be one as well.
At the end of the dance session, they would put their hands together and bow down (Seen in the photo above). This had reminded my interactions with the Cambodian local people during my Cambodia HOPE service trip, the locals would hold their hands together, like giving a prayer, bow down slightly, and say, “Arkun,” meaning “Thank you.” I would feel the same kind of respectful culture in Japan, such as bowing, “Ojigi,” as part of the Japanese etiquette. Bowing, as a form of language, was used in different ways depending on the context. For instance, at my cram school, every time before class, my tutor and I would stand up and bow while I say, “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” translating to “Looking forward to your contributions” Additionally, after class, I would bow again, but not to say “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu,” but rather, “Arigatou gozaimashita” to thank the teacher and her effort and time. At the very end of cram school, I would bow the last time, and say “Sayonara,” meaning, “Goodbye.” This was a different inter-cultural communication compared to my school life at YIS. Although I would have a different communication approach towards my cram school teacher, I would have the same respect towards my teachers at school. Rather than bowing before and after class, I would say good morning/afternoon before class and thank you’s after class.
Depending on the context, language can change, and sometimes, something specific in one language cannot seem to have the same kind of meaning in another language. In this way, language is special, and even in ways that makes us feel a sense of belonging.