Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On being bi-lingual

I wrote an article for On Fire magazine a few years ago about how people in our corps and social services seem to be talking completely different languages. The subject rose again this week and caused me to think again about this difficulty. Here's some of my thoughts from the original article:
One of the things that strikes you when you cross the border is that people on the other side speak a different language. Now this might seem trivial at first, but the way we talk about things like the mission of The Salvation Army becomes so different at times that you might easily wonder whether we were part of the same organisation. To hold William Booth’s vision of our dual-mission together, we need to be effectively bi-lingual; we need to be able to speak to and understand what’s happening on both sides of the border.

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, tells us [in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant] that people think in ‘frames’, “mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions." It’s not just a matter of using different words, but understanding the concepts that lie beneath them

Of course, our ultimate aim is not really to be bi-lingual. As one Army, we should be able to speak the one language, reflecting common goals and values – however, we are not yet at that point. Too often, our language trips us up and we cease to speak effectively to each other. Learning to be bi-lingual is a necessary first step in understanding how the different parts of our organisation can begin to work better together. And like learning any language, we need to start by listening to the other person.

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