Intercultural Communication and the Olympics

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A cold and snowy Soria welcomed me last Monday to give a talk on intercultural communication. In the Sala Roja of el Instituto Antonio Machado, so named in honour of the poet who taught there, intermediate and advanced level English students of the Escuela de Idiomas de Soria braved the weather to attend my talk about intercultural communication.

The theme I chose for my talk was the Olympic Games. Through the use of sport I could explain some underlying themes of intercultural communication using concrete examples, and allow the talk to be understood by a wide range of English proficiencies. The talk was given to groups ranging from B1 (intermediate) to C1 (advanced).

I wanted to use the theme of sport to express some ideas to the students in order to explain to them that subject specific  language can be exclusive, and therefore exclude those with no previous experience of the subject, and inclusive to those who do – and in this case can transcend linguistic boundaries.

To follow from this I wanted to stress that intercultural communication can therefore be both inter- and intralingual. Given my experience as a volunteer interpreter at the Olympic Games, I drew on the nature of preparation for interpreting to explain my ideas. I wanted to stress to these English learners the different knowledge pockets that we all have – and that our linguistic knowledge is not as complete in our own language as we may think. We are simply better equipped to deal with the gaps in our knowledge.

I wanted to use many activities to demonstrate the different levels of linguistic competence we have regarding different sports, not only in English, but also in their native tongue, Spanish. I felt that this was important as sometimes it can seem very daunting learning a new language, having so many gaps in our knowledge. Sometimes it helps to realise that in our own language there are so many things that we don’t know either.

I kicked off with the example of football, as one of the most widely played sports across the world, and certainly a very important sport both in the UK and Spain. I asked them to connect the Spanish terms for common football terms such as “goal”, “throw in” and “free kick” to the English terms. As expected, most dealt with this without much difficulty.

I was using this to explain the inclusive nature of sports language. When you understand the terms being used it brings people who understand both the language and the actions of such a sport together. However, I wanted to explain that football can also be exclusive to those who are not very interested in football, by giving examples of nicknames that football teams have. For people who follow football, this would still constitute an “inclusive” element, but for those for whom football just happens to be a popular sport in their country, this now moves into the “exclusive” realm of the culture.

To switch from common, popular sports, I then moved to the sports I actually interpreted for at the Olympics. I was based in the Excel Exhibition Centre, so I was interpreting for boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, fencing and taekwondo. These are minority sports and so the language used to describe the techniques, the kit and the format of the games are familiar to a smaller audience.

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I chose to use fencing and boxing to demonstrate my point. As regards fencing, I used an image showing various items of fencing kit. I first asked the students to try to name the kit in Spanish, and then in English. I stressed the point that whilst some of the kit items are named using normal, everyday words in both Spanish and English (e.g. chaqueta, jacket), others are not (plastrón, plastron). I used this to emphasise that sometimes it is not being a native speaker of a language that matters, but an interest or knowledge of a subject area.

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Mexican Boxer Oscar Valdez being interviewed after a fight

Mexican Boxer Oscar Valdez being interviewed after a fight

Finally I moved to boxing, to look at stances, punches and defence. This was the most complicated exercise, but the students maintained interest and kept going for the final round. They found that as a group they could name most of the punches in Spanish, and therefore some in English, but the stances and defence was more difficult. Once again, often the names in Spanish of the moves were very similar if not borrowed from the English. This had not been my original intention of demonstrating that sport transcends language barriers, but it did have the added bonus of showing the importance of subject knowledge contrasted against language knowledge, which I think can be a useful tool in language learning.

This brought me to my final point, in that intercultural communication can be extrapolated out to many different cultures – it depends on how you define culture. You can define culture as a language group, you can define it as a country group, a regional group and so on. But, you can also define it by different subject “cultures”. Different sports have their own culture, just as companies do, as well as different professions, and any other group that share a common interest or need. And with this comes different terminology and linguistic expression. Whether you are talking about a Geordie from Newcastle, a social worker (think of all those acronyms), an activist, or a scientist, each of these represents a specific culture, which is one of the many cultures that each person belongs to.

In the end I wanted to express to these students that language is complex and diverse. It is fluid and not static, and that in our own native language there are many gaps in our knowledge, just as there are in any second or third languages that we might learn. However, with our native language these gaps seem small and insignificant most of the time. If we can apply some of the coping mechanisms we apply in our native language to our learning of new languages, then the interlingual gap will become smaller.