January 1997

Root Page of Article: Intercultural Computer-Mediated Communication, by Néstor G. Trillo

What is Culture?

So what is culture? Like the air we breathe, it is perhaps difficult to grasp, but fundamental to human life. According to Dr. Richard Brislin, a leading researcher in the field of intercultural communication, there are at least three indications of culture: concepts, values, and assumptions about life that guide behavior and that are widely shared by people; the part of the environment made by people; and culture is not talked about-much of it is taken for granted (Brislin 1993, pp. 3-24). In a sense, culture allows a person to fill in the "A-B-C's" of what is appropriate, beneficial, and (sometimes) required.

Life, however, is not always as simple as "A-B-C." In college, a colleague of mine was invited to create the programming for a language learning application. This software was intended to assist in language learning by employing hypertext, audio, video, and online translation to reinforce lessons. After months of work, it was ready. The prototype was very impressive: the script of a German play appears on the screen with various sentences underlined in red and blue. Click on a red underlined passage and... POP! A second window appears showing a Shakespearian actor portraying the scene. Click on a blue underlined sentence and... POP! A third window, sharing the English translation of the text, appears next to the German text. The Project Manager was duly impressed...until the prototype was shown to a VIP who tried to view an Arabic play. The text was completely unintelligible. A Chinese poem was next. It too was gibberish.

Why? Did this top-notch programmer miss a bug in the programming? No, the software performed exactly as intended by the programmer. The reason can be found in a cultural assumption made by the programmer. Not all languages read from left to right. Arabic, for example, reads from right to left, furthermore Chinese is often written in columns from right to left. To create a "patch" in the programming to correct the oversight would make the final product unacceptably slow and clumsy. The programmer would have to begin from scratch...

Culture has many --implications for the creation of technology in this age of global interaction.

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