language barriers

08Feb12

The crux of this project is about values, and whose values we will be working with. Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been talking a lot about the values and beliefs of domestic workers, and about “meeting” the domestic workers where they are at instead of the other way around. So rather than coming with our outside values and trying to make them meet our particular cultural standards, it is about discovering what their values are and figuring out what is important to them, so we can support them in reaching their goals and solving the problems that they have defined as problems, not what outsiders have decided are problems.

One of the more interesting challenges I’ve run into is recognizing that at times I speak a different “English” from the people here who are fluent in English. I deal with a lot of people who work in nonprofits, tech companies and universities, and who I see as being very similar to me. Progressive, educated and technologically-engaged with the world, we converse in English all the time. But what I have slowly come to realize as I’ve hit some obstacles in getting the people and resources I need for this project, is that there are certain words I use that are unfamiliar to people here, or that they may use in a slightly different way. I never thought of the word “values” as being a buzz word, but someone suggested that rather than saying “the values and beliefs of the domestic workers”, I say “the psychology of the domestic workers”. But I didn’t MEAN the ‘psychology’ of the domestic workers – except I did. When I was here, and to the people I was speaking to, that was the correct word to use to reflect my meaning.

Another example is that I’ve noticed that people here use the word ‘scheme’ a lot, when they mean ‘plan’. So they’ll say something like, “we have a scheme to help children without parents’, or “an organization has come up with a good scheme for their marketing”. To me, the word ‘scheme’ has negative connotations and does not have the same meaning as a ‘plan’, but here, they are basically using the words interchangeably. There are so many cultures that have taken English and changed it to make it their own, but for the segment of the population in India that thinks of English almost as their first language, or as their main language of communication, it can be a little disorienting and confusing when you really try to get into the specifics of a project.

One wonderful woman I met here referred to the way I spoke as “seminar language” or “seminar English”. I think my words have genuine meaning even as “seminar English”, the issue is that the people I’m speaking to are fluent in English, but they may not be fluent in the particular kind of English I speak – and the biggest problem is that I don’t know which words they get and which words they don’t, and they might not either. I think sometimes they believe they understand what I’m talking about because they recognize all the words I’m saying and the words are familiar, but I’m actually using them in a way that they might not be used to (and so the full meaning doesn’t come across), and vice versa.

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One Response to “language barriers”

  1. 1 Kiran

    Jennifer, you are doing such amazing work in India!! Your program is capturing a vital gap in the non-profit sector related to domestic workers, specifically women, and its impact is endless. You have a long and rewarding journey ahead of you and I know you have the passion, ability and drive to spearhead this into a multi-city program that will help build confidence in domestic workers all across the country. Congrats on a successful trip to India!!


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