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Patterns of Life and Language

January 9, 2024

Karen Hedinger

Over the holidays, we (a couple of American-born English and Spanish speakers) hosted a dinner in which one of the couples was from Korean descent. They speak Korean with their young children at home. During the time, this couple asked Mark and me, “How should our children address you? What should they call you?”


A common American answer to that question is, “Call us by our first name.” Instead of saying this, we asked this couple, “Well, how would they address us appropriately in Korean?” We talked about this for a few minutes, when one of them said, “It would be impossible to address you by your first name in Korean.” You see, the Korean patterns of life and language differentiate depending on the ages, relative social status, and levels of intimacy of the people present. Korean, as well as many other Asian languages have what is called “honorifics” which affects grammar, word forms, and non-verbal communication.


The example above points to the concept that people from different cultural contexts have unique patterns of communication that are intuitive and natural for them. As we deliberately learn these patterns of communication, we communicate appropriately, showing respect for the people and their language. Both they and we can feel more comfortable conversing with each other, which allows us to talk about issues of life and eternity on a much deeper level.

Both they and we can feel more comfortable conversing with each other, which allows us to talk about issues of life and eternity on a much deeper level.

So where can we deliberately watch for these patterns of communication?


Patterns can change depending on the setting. Think about it. Do you greet and talk to people at church the same way you greet and talk to people at your work? I don’t! At church, our particular Hispanic congregation greets with a light hug and an air kiss on the cheek, even between genders. I never greet people at my work this way. At church, our shared relationship with the Lord allows us to talk about God’s work in our lives, often referring to Bible passages as we speak truth to each other. My work conversations are much different. The level of directness, topics that are appropriate to discuss, and even distance between us when present with each other is markedly dissimilar between work and church.


Patterns are also established around the ages of the ones communicating. The Korean example above speaks to this. But what about other places that do not employ a system of honorifics? We were doing language training with some people who work with youth in a country in Central Europe. As they talked about the youth teaching them the language, we encouraged them to check out what they were learning with people from other generations, just to be sure they could speak appropriately to the parents and grandparents of the youth as well as other adults.


Technology affects patterns of communication as well. How I craft my communication on WhatsApp with a group of trainers from around the world is different from how I write to my co-workers in our ministry.


Maybe you’re asking, “How can I go about learning so many different patterns of communication with native speakers of a different language whom God has given me the privilege to know?” Here are some suggestions.


  1. Ask God to give you eyes to see and ears to hear. He wants you to be able to live life and build relationships with those who communicate using different patterns.

  2. Don’t try to learn all the different patterns at one time, especially if you are a new language learner. Choose a setting and even interactions between specific age/social status groups and focus on that for a time before moving on to another setting.

  3. Observe! Where can you go to observe these kinds of interactions? In some places, the market is a great place to watch. We used to watch interactions while sipping coffee in the town square/plaza. One trainee I worked with recently found the neighborhood convenience store and the town mall to be great places to watch. Watch wherever you’re at.

  4. Ask! Are there native speakers in their context who would be willing to help you learn? And learn to be specific when you ask. We just had one language learner who asked how to give appropriate comfort when there is a death in the family. The insights and vocabulary were really striking! You can ask for how to talk in a school, or at the market, or in a museum. . .. Working with language helpers to learn specific communication in specific situations is a powerful way to learn.

  5. Use one of our CultureBound tools: Watch-Think-Guess-Act/Ask.


So, as a life-long language learner, what is the next communication pattern you wish to learn?


We at CultureBound, would be happy to walk alongside you as you learn new communication patterns.

Feel free to contact us at

Karen Hedinger, EdD, is director of language acquisition program at CultureBound. Her experience learning several languages allows her to effectively lead and teach our language courses. Karen has led both culture and language training alongside her husband Mark for many years.




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