If there’s a single message in the winter 2014 issue of Terra, it’s this: Language matters. It frames our relationships and defines our culture. It affirms common interests and ways of seeing the world. If you want to get something done, using the right language can make all the difference.
I learned that lesson early. At the dinner table, my parents would occasionally shift from English to their native Dutch. It often seemed to happen close to Christmas. My sisters and I, who spoke only English, knew the conversation was not meant for our ears.
As an ethnographer in Guatemala in the 1980s, Oregon State professor Cherri Pancake learned that understanding Mayan culture required extraordinary care in how she spoke during interviews and meetings. Later, when she became a computer engineer, she applied that skill to the world of software. She and her team in the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering interview people who use computer algorithms (the steps programmers create to accomplish a task) to make decisions about everything from forest fires to crop insurance. The language of software — vocabulary, structure, logic — matters to them.
For Kayla García, who grew up in Wisconsin, learning Spanish felt more like an act of remembering than encountering something new. The professor in the OSU School of Language, Culture and Society has her feet in both English- and Spanish-speaking worlds. Her work acts like a prism for culture. It reveals peoples’ lives in colors that speakers of other languages might otherwise never see.
Language is also at the heart of Gregg Walker’s research on international negotiations. The Law of the Sea Treaty talks were complicated enough, he says, but they pale in comparison to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In Warsaw last fall, he listened and advised as delegates parsed words to underscore what’s at stake in the climate change debate: our survival and the world as we know it.
Their stories show Oregon State’s commitment to solving problems and enriching lives.