Lessons from language


With increasing access to information and cultural convergence, learning to reach out to others from different backgrounds with understanding and love is of utmost importance to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, William Eggington said during Tuesday’s Devotional.

Eggington, BYU’s Department of Linguistics and English Language Chair, used several studies from his field of study to illustrate how misunderstanding can develop between individuals from differing backgrounds, even without a language barrier. Language not only has grammatical meaning, but also an intended meaning that develops out of cultural norms. Eggington, who joined the Church as a teenager in Australia, used two hypothetical situations to show how this principle had impacted his own life. He shared experiences about teaching in both Australia and California.

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Bill Eggington, chair of the Linguistics Department, speaks at Tuesday's Devotional in the Marriott Center.
In Australia, teachers met in the lounge to commiserate with each other about certain classes or students. But in America, when he voiced similar complaints among his colleagues, they responded by giving unwanted advice. His fellow teachers, he said, interpreted his complaints as pleas for help, and he subsequently interpreted their suggestions as assumptions of his incompetence.

“I even went through a period where I started thinking about know-it-all, patronizing Americans in terms of stereotypes reinforced by a process known as confirmation bias,” Eggington said. “This process can easily become a silent killer of goodwill, charity and compassion.”

In these situations, Eggington said individuals have two choices — either withdraw and create an isolated environment to avoid such situations, or become open to foreign ideas and treat other cultures with respect, love and understanding.

“It’s natural human behavior [to withdraw],” Eggington said. “Default behavior for the natural man. But, as suggested earlier, it’s not what Heavenly Father wants us to do.”

With English quickly becoming a dominant world language, Eggington said it is easy for native English speakers to develop a subconscious sense of cultural superiority — a belief that other cultures could be improved by becoming more like a more prevalent culture. Eggington cited scripture and statements made by former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley to suggest that members of the Church resist this mentality.

“This is our responsibility to all the kindreds of the earth,” Eggington said. “This responsibility extends not just to people who are like us, or to people who want to become like us, but to all the kindreds of the earth.”

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