How to avoid misunderstandings in international settings

At the Families In Global Transition (FIGT) Conference 2017 in The Hague, I had the honor to hold a panel discussion with Ruth van Reken (co-founder of FIGT and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds) and Rita Rosenback (author of Bringing up a Bilingual Child). The title of our panel was Finding your Language on the Move.

Ruth focused on the terminology we use when talking and writing about children and families in global transition, and Rita talked about the use of minority languages at home, focusing on multiple languages international families share and learn along the way.

I had the pleasure to bridge between these two ways to look at language and decided to focus on the way we use words, demonstrating that even using simple words or concepts, misunderstandings can happen and often remain unnoticed.

This is especially important to keep in mind when we are in an international setting where English is usually the lingua franca. Also, at FIGT everyone comes from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and we use different kinds of English.

I observe and study the different use of languages for my own practice and I always advise to be careful when using a certain terminology or at least be aware of the different possible interpretations when we use terminologies in an international context, because they can easily lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings: it might be advisable to practice the more "International English".


At FIGT I illustrated this phenomenon by asking the international audience to all picture a tree. – I chose this term to make it as simple as possible.

If I would have had superpowers that allowed me to see their thought bubbles, I would probably have seen a great diversity of trees like this:

In fact, this is what happens when we talk with each other.
We think in pictures, images and connect those images in the world to the words that we know and vice versa.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure explained in his Cours de Linguistique Générale at the beginning of the last century, that we connect this sound image (word)/ signifiant to the concept (image or more abstract) signifié.

If we know the language a bit better, we may learn the names of different trees and when someone says tree, we associate the image of a specific tree – maple tree, apple tree, palm tree etc – to that word, also depending, of course, from our personal preference.

This explains the variety of trees everyone in the audience was picturing.
If this variety of connections between the word and the object in the world happens when we talk the same language – in this case English – you can only imagine what happens if we talk different languages and our signifiants and signifiés become more complex and elaborated!

More than half of the worlds population understands and speaks more than one language and when we gather in an international setting, we all carry this multilingual (and multicultural) package with us, tainted with our very own experience and our very personal preferences.

What we do on a subconscious level is to connect the picture of a tree to different sound chains/ words in different languages. If we are quite fluent in the other languages (and we are really interested in trees) we connect to all the subcategories of trees (maple, oak, pine, birch etc.) and their respective equivalents in the other languages. If someone then asks us to think about a boom or an arbre we easily picture one of the trees in our mental repertory.

How can we manage not to get confused and cause misunderstandings when talking about trees?

Trees all have specific semantic fields in common. If we compare the definition of all those trees and in all those languages (in different dictionaries): they all define a tree by having a stem (+ stem) and branches (+branches) – not all descriptions in the dictionaries mention the characteristic of being "wooden", which is interesting, but that's a topic for another post.

No matter if our tree has needles, leaves, grows in Africa, America or Europe, is imported or indigenous: as long as it fulfills the simple requirements of having a stem and branches, we talk about the same object.

If we talk about a tree that we decorate for Christmas, those who pictured a palm tree or an apple tree, will change their mental image to a Christmas tree and adjust to the required context.

When and why do misunderstandings happen?

Even if we picture the same object in the world (or concept) while talking to someone we don't share a language with, misunderstandings happen when we can't recognize the sound chain, the word, and fail to connect it with the object in our mind (in our thought bubble) like in this picture:

Both individuals are thinking about the tree, but the words they give to the object and share with the other person are so different in their sound that they can't connect them to the object (arbre, albero and tree sound different from boom). Therefore their communication is likely to fail.

Misunderstandings and miscommunications also happen if we use a term that in another language means something completely different, like if someone uses the Finnish term for tree for example.

Only if we share the same language, or understand the other persons language to the required extent to make communication happen, i.e. we make the right connections between words and concepts, we can understand the other, connect and have successful conversations and discussions.

It surely helps to ask questions to make sure we're talking about the same thing, but that requires, of course, that we can find a way to do so.

If our knowledge of the other language goes beyond basic language proficiency (using the CEFR) and embraces also the different layers of a language, so that we understand its sub-meanings (semantic fields), we can expand our understanding and use of words.

We can expand the use of tree for example to other contexts and picture its variants like a way to represent a graph or a vascular tree etc.:


With this very simple example of a tree I wanted to illustrate that the way we connect words to concepts depend on our experiences, preferences, expectations, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

When we are interacting with culturally and linguistically diverse people we need to make sure that the language we use doesn't lead to misinterpretations.

Especially when talking about more complicated and abstract concepts like Cross Cultural Kids, Corporate Brads, Foreign Service Kids, Educational CCKs, Third Culture Kids, Children of Immigrants, Domestic TCKs etc. we need to make sure that they are understandable in other languages. One way is to translate them into other languages. Third Culture Kids for example has been translated into many other languages.

Drittkulturkinder is used in German, enfants de troisième culture in French and ragazzi di terza cultura in Italian etc., in almost the same contexts.

In Japanese, "Third Culture Kids" referring to "children returned from living overseas" is not universally accepted. In Japanese and in English these children are typically referred as Kikokushijo, literally "returnee children" (a term which has different implications). Using different terms in one language for one term in another is not uncommon – but explaining this particular aspect of translating terms and concepts would be going a bit too far for this article.

Fact is that language is constantly changing and evolving and so are all these English terms and also for their translations and adaptations in other languages.

The whole discussion and research on "children growing up internationally and who spend most of their developmental years outside of their parent's country of origin", has gone beyond the English use of the terms and invites us to embrace a great variety of concepts and to be more inclusive with the terms and the approaches.

Personally, I wish that the research about these children and families (i.e. Third Culture Kids or Third Culture Families) would be accessible for everyone working with internationals in different languages because those expats/internationals whose dominant language is not English, should be able to access the excellent help and support offered by many members of FIGT.

– And if you want to be more conscious and effective about the language you use in international settings, contact me at .

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