Language – More than Just Grammar and Vocabulary

Irish novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde once said “We (British) have everything in common with America except our language”. At first glance this seems rather strange, being that both the United Kingdom and the United States in fact have the same language. After all, an English speaker from another country can visit the United States and talk with Americans and then visit the United Kingdom and talk with the British. So, why is this quote so popular? And why do so many think it’s accurate.

Well, as many can tell you, being able to speak other languages is more than just knowing the vocabulary and grammar. There are much other layers in communications, particularly nonverbal layers. Body language, facial expressions, and voice tone all add meaning to verbal communications, we learn these meanings for our native languages while we are growing up, but many language and linguist classes often do not teach them. Without knowing the nonverbal contexts, its easy to misunderstand when someone is communicating with you in another language, even though you know the vocabulary and grammar. Furthermore, you run the risk of being misunderstood, sometimes completely and oppositely of what you were telling others.

One of the, many, classifications of languages are grouping them into high and low context. In high context languages, what is not said carries more meaning and more accurately reflects what the speaker is actually saying, compared to low context languages which are more verbally direct. Bahasa Indonesian for example has many ways of saying “yes, but I really mean no”. Thus, when a speaker from a low-context language and a speaker of a high-context language communicate, the high-context speaker is primarily looking at non-verbal cues and deriving meaning from those, while the low-context speaker is simply being direct. At the same time, the low-context speaker is taking everything the high-context speaker at face value, missing important non-verbal cues that convey what the high-context speaker is truly saying.

Examples of high-context languages include:

  • Japanese
  • Chinese
  • Indonesian
  • Arabic
  • Latin American Spanish
  • Brazilian Portuguese

Examples of low-context languages include:

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Scandinavian Languages
  • Dutch


It becomes important then to recognize where your language stands, and where the language you wish to learn stands. If you are coming from a high-context language and are studying a low-context language, then you should learn to accept speech at face value. Not necessarily meaning the speaker is honest, but rather, he is being direct. Likewise, if you are from a low-context language, you need to learn to identify and recognize the non-verbal cues and their meanings, to not take what is said at face value. Again, it does not mean the high-context speaker is being dishonest. It is simply that many cultures do not like being direct, especially with bad news or saying “no”. They evolved ways of saying no or saying bad news without saying directly, and since other native speakers were raised in such cultures, they learned those cues.

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