A Story from my Past: Adapting to a New Language

Recently I read a post by Pawel Brodzinski.  He made the point that people need to strive towards shared meaning of terms, and that it isn’t always easy.  Those who learn a second language perhaps have a greater appreciation of word meanings in general and will dig beneath the surface for shared understanding with more curiosity than those who only speak the language natively. I would like to share a story from my past that may explain why I, too, strive to uncover the shared meaning and context of words.

When I first arrived in Burundi, age 12, I was very excited.  My father explained that since he was a diplomat, my siblings and I had to be on our best behavior and represent the best about the United States. I did not know what that meant, exactly, but I did try to behave.  I also tried to adapt to the new culture at school and to the surroundings. Language was the main barrier.

We arrived in the late summer and I had a few weeks of tutoring to help prepare me for French school.  I have only one strong recollection from the early days. I did not understand much – the instructor was talking about something and I heard him say: ‘leee-on’.  My family had come to Burundi after taking a 3 week road trip through Europe, and we had passed through ‘Lyons’.  When the instructor asked me, ‘Do you know ‘leee-on’?’   I said ‘Yes, it is a city.’  I managed to squeak out: ‘Oui, c’est une cité’.  Everyone laughed.  He had been talking about the animal, a lion, and proceeded to draw it on the chalkboard.  I was embarrassed, but I survived. Context is everything. Respect and patience for those who do not share the same vocabulary, context and meaning is critical.  Building a truly shared vocabulary takes time.  Most are not even aware where there are gaps until there is a failure of great magnitude. While this example is very basic, the lesson learned here applies universally.

When you are in a new environment, whether it be a country, a company, or a relationship, you will not necessarily share the same language, lingo, or vocabulary. If you do share it, you may not share the same meaning for the same words. For example, someone transitioning from a waterfall project to an agile project will understand what the word ‘requirement’ means in a different way. The transition requires that new vocabulary and meanings be adopted (epic, story).   Words are tokens. What those tokens mean has to be learned.  Languages are rich in synonyms and homonyms.  Teams should strive for shared meaning and pay attention to words, verbal cues, and shared understanding in day-to-day work.

The communication ‘distance’ between two or more people is measured by meanings, visions, and vocabulary that are not mutually shared or are shared but not understood in the same way. The closer teams come to shared meaning, the better they will communicate, the better they will perform.  And unlike in French school, where everybody laughed at me, the environment must be a ‘communication-safe’ environment.  My two-year cultural immersion in Burundi helped make me more resilient, but a more supportive environment would have been appreciated!  In the near future, I hope to post more about what I consider to be ‘communication-safe’ environment and how my coaching will enable that to happen effectively.

Thank you, Pawel, for inspiring me to write about this.

Explore posts in the same categories: Personal Growth

9 Comments on “A Story from my Past: Adapting to a New Language”

  1. morgsterious Says:

    Beautiful post Andrea. Though I loved the sentence “Respect and patience for those who do not share the same vocabulary, context and meaning is critical.”, I’d be willing to say that this goes beyond just showing respect. We shouldn’t assume that these dimensions are shared by anyone around us. We are always foreigners regarding the context of others and need to be as humble to those around us every day as we would be when dropped on the other side of the world.

    Looking forward to more on the subject.



  2. Andrea Chiou Says:

    Absolutely. You are correct and how the coach needs to facilitate that discovery is what I will try to delve into next. Thank you for your feedback!


  3. Andrea: this reminds of the time I was sitting in on a meeting that gradually turned ugly. Two departments were discussing how to act with regards to a certain product, let’s call it the “PBD”.

    One group argued that the company ought to proceed aggressively, experiment rapidly and learn.

    The other side was in opposition to this, arguing for conservative changes. After some time, I had to open my mouth, so I picked a person on random and asked: “This might be a stupid question, but I have to ask what you refer to when you talk about the ‘PBD'”. He answered with a shrug: “Why do you ask? It’s our prototype product that we’re working on in the labs.”

    He hardly had the time to finish his sentence before the other side of the table reacted violently: “No, no, no – it’s our flagship product, deployed at dozens of customer sites.” Turns out they had been using the same acronym for two different products.

    We often think we understand each other, but we really don’t, and that can really get us into trouble.

    Thanks for the post! /Tobias


    • Andrea Chiou Says:

      Thank you for adding your story. I am glad you were there to help resolve that one quickly. Simple questioning of ‘words’ and their meaning is so easy to do – why do more people not do it? Sometimes it is a fear of looking silly, social pressures and the environment not being supportive. [or they needed to attend AYE conference – smile]

      As a side note, there is a tool that I discovered last year when I was researching solutions for the project I was on. It was really a business rule tool for the business owners. The foundation for the rules is a shared vocabulary database. The vocabulary portion of the tool allowed for multiple communities, multiple languages, and therefore multiple meanings for same terms as well as synonyms. You can start to imagine that a business that needs to communicate words within its ‘boundary’ may also need to use different words to the outside world. This tool allowed the business owners to manage these vocabularies and build policies and rules for the business. It was really nifty tool. You can learn about it at: http://www.rulexpress.com/

      Of course, as a coach, I am interested in the failure modes in human to human interactions, why they happen, and how they can be prevented. Tools can only do a tiny portion of the heavy lifting.

      Thanks for the retweet and comment!


  4. Andrea Chiou Says:

    Here is another twist. People ‘stealing’ words to reflect behaviors or meanings that the orignial word did not intend, thereby removing available vocabulary for the actual behavior, once it occurs. This is a really interesting post – particularly with respect to agile adoptions.



  5. jasonlittle Says:

    Great post Andrea. I find it to be very helpful to create a shared understanding of words even without having a language barrier. ‘quality’ is the first that comes to mind. I remember working with a team that defined ‘quality’ as having 100% unit test coverage. The problem with that is the business hears ‘we guarantee no problems’ and I’ve actually heard business people say things like “but wait, you said you have 100% coverage” when a problem happens.
    Even without the language difference it’s important to create a shared understanding, especially between IT and business folks.


    • Andrea Chiou Says:

      Thank you Jason for that example. It is pervasive within a culture as well, yes. We all need the presence of mind to really listen, enquire, be empathic and curious – to shake assumptions, confirm common goals thoroughly. [Sidenote: I think intercultural experiences enhance those skills]

      I just finished reading ‘Influencer’ – amazing book by same authors as Crucial Conversations. I am very interested in teaching Crucial Conversations skills. People need to consider that making promises such as the one you describe is an example of a ‘Crucial Conversation’. One who promises needs to ensure that the receiver interprets the same meaning as the sender. Ahhh…so much work to be done along those lines.


  6. Very good illustration of a common (and often overlooked) problem. Thanks for posting.


  7. Just a follow on after more thought (and more consideration of some of the comments above) … Jargon is everywhere, but what we need to understand is that it is necessary. As we go about our daily jobs, we necessarily refine and “jargonize” words in our normal vocabulary in order to clarify meaning. Like Alice in Wonderland, our words “mean exactly what we want them to mean; nothing more and nothing less.” As long as we share the right context, this is a good thing. Of course, this can easily get out of hand (as noted in Dave’s “rant” cited above). As one wag has stated it, “when in doubt, invent new terminology”.

    The key to remember here, though, is that (in general) we find it much easier to change definitions than to change the words themselves. I really enjoy looking through the etymology portions of the OED to see how words have changed over time. (And yes, i already know that it is strange to like reading a dictionary.) In a world where change seems to be accelerating, is it any wonder that language change accelerates in an effort to keep up?

    So as a practical issue, we need to ensure that our interactions with each other really do include that shared context that allows us to reap the benefits of jargon. The assumption that “everybody knows …” lurks in the bowels of many a failed project.


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