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Language Disconnect and its Harmful Impact

Image of neon sign that says "blah blah blah" (Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

There are nearly 8 billion people on the Earth who speak one of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in countries around the world. Language is important — it connects us and allows us to communicate and understand one another. For Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs), it’s hard to learn and connect with the native languages spoken in countries that are not native to them. These individuals suffer from a disconnect of language.

Language is defined by Oxford as “the principal method of human communication, consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way.” It’s not only words but also slang and dialects that are conveyed through speech and writing. Language is passed down from generation to generation, changing every time, dialects shift and slang is added. While natives may have trouble keeping up with the change, few struggle as much as a CCK.

A CCK is a person who has spent their developmental years meaningfully interacting with two or more cultural environments. CCKs can’t learn the language of every country or region that they visit so they naturally are disconnected from the culture.

Importance of language

Image of graffiti in a different language on street wall
Image via Unsplash.

If culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.

– Khaled Hosseini, And The Mountains Echoed

It’s widely known that language is what connects us, it’s one of the most important parts of culture. Culture is passed down through many things but most notably through language. By knowing the language of a nation you are able to communicate, understand and socially navigate spaces.  When you don’t understand the language, you can’t understand the culture. Nor can you effectively live in that society. You experience a language disconnect.

When you don’t understand the culture you can have trouble connecting to people, finding friends and establishing roots. CCKs who experience a language disconnect are also disconnected from the culture, the people, their traditions and society.

Language disconnect

Image of book written in a language other than English
Image via Unsplash.

Cross-Cultural Kids live in a litany of places. It’s understandable that they may not be fluent in all the native languages of the countries they reside in. While it’s common for CCKs to be fluent in more than one language, many aren’t fluent in the languages of the countries they live in. For younger people in a nation, slang is an extraordinarily common method of communication. Slang is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech.” 

Ruth Van Reken, co-author of one of the first books written about the CCK experience, is well aware of the struggles CCKs face. Reken writes about how CCKs may suffer from loneliness as a result of not understanding the language:

Few things make people, including TCKs, feel more left out than seeing everyone else laughing at something they can’t understand as funny.

-Quoted from her book “Third-Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds”.

CCKs don’t understand the language so they are disconnected from society and the people. This disconnect can have detrimental effects on them.

Impact of loss of culture

Image of sign in Chinese language
Image via Unsplash.

Shelly Maas, a student at Colorado State University, is a Third-Culture Kid (TCK) which is a subsection of CCKs. TCKs are kids who have spent their developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. They often must learn new speech and linguistic codes when they migrate around the world. Maas is the daughter of an international salesman. She has lived in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, China, Japan, South Africa and Canada. 

Maas is fluent in English and Arabic and she can understand some Mandarin but she can’t speak the native languages of the other countries she has lived in. Maas struggled heavily in these countries — she couldn’t read, write or speak the language so she wasn’t able to do basic things that others are able to do:

When I lived in Japan, I obviously didn’t understand Japanese so I had a hard time. My parents would go to work in the morning, leaving me alone in the hotel with nothing to do. My mother would give me money and encourage me to get out and explore the city but I couldn’t. I couldn’t read street signs, I couldn’t understand the maps and I couldn’t ask for help when I got lost. It sucks when you can’t understand the language. I felt like I was invisible, I’m sure these constant experiences in which I couldn’t communicate weren’t all that good for my mental health.

Shelly Maas on her experiences with a language disconnect in Japan

Language

Maas isn’t the only CCK who has faced a similar experience with the language. Language is the guiding tool used in all societies; without understanding the language, you may as well be invisible.

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