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Friday, June 24, 2005


I would like to have taken my son to a meeting in Geneva I've just come back from. I wanted him to feel how it is in a situation where people move between languages and where everyone speaks at least two and understand more. Conversations flow through languages, with never less than two languages being spoken at any one time. With at least two languages in operation there is a whole other level of sensitivity, listening and sense-making going on, which you don't normally see in a multi-lingual group all using one language, let alone a mono-lingual group.

In my team of eight people, we were working in Spanish, Portuguese, French and English. Around the table at the meeting were people from Belgium, France, Argentina and Portugal. Some people spoke in Spanish, others in Portuguese - although a number of concepts could only be expressed in French or English.

Completely bi-lingual, Nuri feels self-conscious about speaking English in front of his Portuguese friends and uncomfortable about having to translate to Portuguese for English visitors. He doesn't acknowledge that he speaks French, but fluently takes over in France when he gets tired or embarrassed of me struggling through some interaction. He doesn't like feeling unusual because of his language skills and he's also intolerant of people (including himself) making mistakes. So I wanted him to be in Geneva where he would have been normal in terms of operating in different languages and where he might also have understood how language mistakes are the least of your worries when your aim is to communicate!


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