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6.3 Linguistic Relativity

In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne FadimanFadiman (1998). described the story of a Hmong refugee family, the Lees, and their intercultural interactions with doctors in Merced, California. The story is about Lia Lee, the second-youngest daughter who is diagnosed with severe epilepsy. Within the Hmong culture, epilepsy is not described in the same way that Western medical doctors describe it; epilepsy is described as qaug dab peg or “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” According to animism, the foundation for Hmong religious beliefs, both good and bad spirits surround us. Epileptic attacks are seen as the ability of an individual to temporarily join the spirit world. This is seen as honorable because the spirits have chosen that person to communicate with them.

The language used by Hmong and Americans to describe their understanding and knowledge of what was happening to Lia can be referred to as linguistic relativity. Linguistic relativityThe idea that language influences the perceptions and thoughts of people, which in turn affects their behavior. was first developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, and is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,Whorf (1956). or the principle of linguistic relativity. It describes the idea that language influences the perceptions and thoughts of people, thus affecting their behavior. In Hmong culture, there is no word for “epilepsy”; instead, the word is associated with the animistic worldview of the Hmong, which serves as a philosophical, religious, and spiritual guide to operating one’s life. The only way to describe epilepsy is related to this world view of spirits. In Western medicine and science, rationality, logic, and objectivity are important—scientific words and definitions are not abstract; rather, they are concrete.

Sapir and Whorf argued that individuals are not aware of the influence of language, and it is only when moving between cultures that individuals become aware. A commonly cited example of linguistic relativity is the example of how Inuit Eskimos describe snow. In English, there is only one word for snow, but in the Inuit language, many words are used to describe snow: “wet snow,” “clinging snow,” “frosty snow,” and so on.

The following case study further explains the idea behind linguistic relativity:

Carol serves as a program director for a local nonprofit in the Washington DC area. Her organization has received a federal grant to implement employment training and resources to serve the large and growing Somali population in the area. The grant requires her organization to track outcomes and the impact of the training program on participants’ lives. Each participant is required to attend an exit interview session conducted by a staff person.

Carol creates a survey that is both qualitative and quantitative to measure the impact. Questions relate to the participant’s experience in the program and ask participants to rate their level of agreement to statements. Table 6.2 "Survey to Measure Program Impact" shows sample questions from the quantitative survey.

Pattie serves as the interviewer for all the sessions. She reads out loud each statement and given the responses, checks the appropriate box. She notices that during the first round of interviews, participants are unsure how to respond. They are unclear about the levels of rating given to them: strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Additionally, some of the statements are confusing. She tries to explain the difference but is unsure how to describe the statements differently. She’s frustrated because she’s concerned she’s not getting the right information, and she knows that it must upset the participants.

Table 6.2 Survey to Measure Program Impact

Statements Strongly Disagree Disagree Agree Strongly Agree
I know how to use the Internet to find a job.
I am able to put together a resume for a job.
When I find a job I like, I know how to respond to the job posting.
I know the appropriate questions to ask a potential employer in interviews.

Carol and Pattie discuss what they could do differently in the survey or process to help the Somali participants understand the questions. Unfortunately, they do not have an employee on staff that can translate. In the end, Carol and Pattie decide to change the process and the language barriers in the interview. They decide that pictures may help illustrate a level of agreement. They also agree to take out the “big words” or words that would further confuse the participants. They also changed the rating scale to reflect: yes, no, and maybe. The revised survey had the following questions.

I know how to use the Internet to find a job.

I know how to create a resume for a job.

When I find a job I like, I know who to call in the company.

I know what I can and can’t ask in interviews.

Now imagine that you are Carol’s boss and you have been updated about this situation. What suggestions do you have for Carol and Pattie as they continue their work?

There are a number of ways to think about the work. In cultural intelligence, understanding how to adapt your behavior is critical. The following are questions that you should think about in order to help Carol and Pattie adapt their behaviors:

  • What emotions come up for you in this work?
  • Are the emotions negative or positive? How does it fuel your work?
  • What is the influence of language on evaluation?
  • What body language do you notice? What does it tell you? How can it be helpful to our work to identify verbal and nonverbal cues?
  • What are we doing that works?
  • What do we know does not work in this project?
  • What are the learning opportunities for all?

Asking these questions is a start toward continuing the good work that Carol and Pattie have already begun. As the two move forward in their work and learn more about what works and what does not work, they will learn to ask and reflect on questions that are inclusive to other cultures.