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Sri Lankan Fisherman sitting on a pole fishing near ocean shore.
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Rapport and Local Languages

“Buenos dias,” the older woman says. Her voice is low, guarded. “Awena kitine,” my colleague responds. The meaning’s the same -- good morning -- but he’s speaking Highland Chontal, a language spoken by only a few thousand people, rather than Spanish.
“Awena kitine,” she says, a smile warming her eyes, “te ts’i’ik mopa’a?” How are you? “Ma awena,” I chime in. I’m well. After these pleasantries, we return quickly to Spanish. We’ve come to this town to interview people about the language, and neither my colleague nor I speaks enough Chontal to conduct a full interview. Yet the openness in her eyes doesn’t fade, and every time we mention a Chontal word, it brightens further.

As anthropologists, my colleague and I are well aware that it can be difficult to build rapport across different cultures. After all, we don’t all show respect in the same ways, and we may differ on such basic points as where to stand and whether to look others in the eye. But a foundation of rapport and respect is also imperative if we are to work together. Speaking to someone in their own language can be a valuable starting point. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Research backs up this claim. For example, one study showed that multilinguals find the words “I love you” to have a stronger meaning in their first language than in their other languages. Another study suggests that multilinguals find swearwords stronger in their first language, and those who use their first language more frequently find them even stronger than those who don’t.*

This increased emotion helps explain why learning some words in the local language can go such a long way towards building the rapport and respect necessary to work together. On one level, learning some local words represents a desire to connect directly with others. It also suggests that you are interested in learning who people are and how they go about their lives. But perhaps most importantly, speaking to someone in their language allows you to connect on a human level -- on the level of the heart.

On the week-long research trip, we repurpose our minimal Chontal vocabulary again and again for this very reason. We greet every new person we meet, and we ask for new words whenever we can. Each time, that first good morning is transformative. Although some people remain wary of us -- we are strangers, after all -- our ability to greet people in their own language carries the banner of our good intentions, and most respond accordingly.

Note: Jean-Marc Dewaele has studied these questions and other similar ones. See, for instance:

  • Dewaele, Jean-Marc. 2004. The emotional force of swearwords and taboo words in the speech of multilinguals. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 25(2-3): 204-222.
  • Dewaele, Jean-Marc. 2008. The emotional weight of I love you in multilinguals’ languages. Journal of Pragmatics 40(10: 1753-1789.
  • Dewaele, Jean-Marc. 2010. Emotions in Multiple Languages. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

See also:

  • Pavlenko, Aneta. 2005. Emotions and Multilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scenic view of The Great Wall of China Landscape.