Thursday, June 6, 2013

Guest Post: Bilingual encounters, cultural disasters? By Paula

I am pleased to introduce this guest blog post by Paula at Language Insight!!

In April, I posted about my first guest post experience. It was Paula's experience (read it here Growing up bilingual) that inspired me to share mine.

I'm so happy that she wrote a fantastic blog post for my blog. I've never traveled to Brazil(where Paula is from) and England (where she lives now), but this post makes me want to travel to experience different cultures! Thank you again, Paula!


After writing about bringing up my child as a bilingual speaker (English and Brazilian Portuguese), the idea of how two different languages affect a relationship, be it romantic or platonic or simply passing, started to intrigue me. Cultural differences affect us every day, yet when it comes to relationships, we all take those differences for granted.
According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of linguistics, your language is your world view. The theory states that rather than your view of the world affecting your language, the language you speak establishes your perspective. For example, Brazilians have an expressive, lively and rounded language, so by default, they are perceived as being less formal and more fun loving. Or, as we call it, party animals.
Elsewhere, Italians and French people love to add a flourish to their descriptions of anything by adding lavish adjectives. Phrases such as “sweet night” make perfect sense for them while it sounds as cheesy as hell in English. By default, they are thought of as being very romantic. The English, on the other hand, use a heavy dose of apologies and euphemisms for everything. As a result, they are considered polite. Albeit most of the time this is mock politeness; nevertheless, the language demands that you apologise before complaining to someone that they are standing on your feet on the Tube. There is even a difference between countries that speak the same language. European Portuguese, for example, is considered to be more literal than Brazilian Portuguese. So if a Brazilian driver told a Portuguese driver that his door is open while stopped at traffic lights, the Portuguese driver might disagree and tell him that his door is not open, it’s just shut incorrectly.
According to the Oxford Reference Dictionary, South Americans - or Latin people - have a very expressive language (think hand gestures going in every direction), and their culture is known as a ‘high-contact culture’, which basically means their concept of personal space is particularly small. Meanwhile languages like German and English, for instance, feature less body language. Because of this, they are considered to be 'low-contact cultures' meaning personal space is very important. It doesn’t take much to see it. Walk into an English pub and try to tell who is in a relationship with whom. Most likely, you won’t be able to tell. Or at least, not until they have a couple of glasses of wine! Walk into a Brazilian bar and who is with whom is incredibly clear. It’s not that the Brazilians like ‘PDAs’ (public displays of affection); they are just  high-contact, which means they touch each other more often as well as stand closer to each other.
So, what happens when two people from different cultures get together? When we meet someone from another culture we automatically assume they’ll understand our sense of humour and expressions if they speak our language but, in most cases, we completely disregard the fact that their mother tongue will give them a different viewpoint. These differences in our way of thinking could also affect a person’s expectations or how they would react in certain situations. For instance, if an English man approached an English woman he had never met and told her she looked "good enough to eat" or blew kisses at her, she might consider him unstable and threatening. In Brazil, providing he does not touch the woman, that would be considered a compliment. In England, telling someone to "go to hell" might have very little consequence, but I would not recommend trying to say it to an Italian Catholic as it will not go down well at all. But perhaps the most interesting difference of all is sense of humour. Have you ever noticed jokes don’t translate well? Brazilian jokes tend to be very visual, while English jokes tend to be very sarcastic or a play on words. A joke in one culture could easily become offensive in another.
Idioms - those old sayings we love to quote as moral lessons or expressions - are another point of misunderstanding. The French, for example, might tell you “you have the heart of an artichoke”, which means “you are fickle in love” in English. The Dutch might tell you “that’s a monkey sandwich story”, which basically means it’s a myth.  Germans might tell you “you are playing the insulted liver sausage”, meaning you’re sulking. Brazilians will tell you they "prefer to have one bird in their hands than two flying away”. In other words, they'd rather be safe than sorry. And the list goes on … (If you want to read more, have a look at the book Idiomantics by Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis. Some of the examples are quite entertaining).
So, while someone might be fluent in a language, it doesn’t necessarily mean they think the same way or take things at the same face value as a native speaker. It’s necessary to be careful and always keep in mind these subtle differences in order to avoid major misunderstandings. This is why localization in translation is so important.
Localization accounts for regional dialects, typography, correct terminology and common sense. It is what brings your message home to your target audience or market. In other words, if you were at traffic lights in Brazil, our translator would tell you your car door is open, but in Portugal our translator would tell you your door is not shut properly.
For more articles by Paula and to find out more about translation, localization and bilingualism, visit the Language Insight media centre.


  1. You are more than welcomed!!! Thank you for letting me write a post for you! <3 xx

    1. I visited your blog today. I wish I could write like you! I'm already looking forward to meeting you in person someday :)