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Language shock is the frustration and mental anguish that results in being reduced to the level of a two-year-old in one's ability to communicate.
In order to define culture shock, we must first define "culture". Culture means a lot more than knowing which side of the plate to put the fork on. Culture is defined as "all learned behavior which is socially acquired." There are millions of rules, regulations, attitudes and values that make up any given culture. These rules and attitudes are learned from birth and are so internalized that they form a part of who and what we are. The difficulty is that other societies have a different set of rules, regulations, attitudes and values that govern their behavior. When the American goes to another country, he carries with him all of his own rules and attitudes. If the American were able to correctly differentiate between his own set of rules and those of his host country, there would be no serious problem. However, these rules have been internalized. He has come to believe that they are THE ONLY WAY to act and react. The issue is further confused by the fact that many of the actions and items in the two cultures are the same outwardly, but they differ in purpose, and they do not mean the same thing. For example, everyone knows how to wave goodbye. But in Latin America this same motion means "Come here".
Thus culture shock is the disorientation resulting from the removal or from the distortion of the cues, signs, rules and regulations that govern social interaction. I want to emphasize again that we are unaware of the many cues, clues, signs and symbols that are necessary for our psychological well-being. The reaction to these cues is automatic and ingrained. Thus we often have committed blunders before we have had time to think the situation through and react properly. Our own President gave us a good example of this right here in Panama. When Presidente Torrijos of Panama met Jimmy Carter, he tried to give him a friendly, cordial abraso (hug). To have done anything less would have shown disrespect for President Carter. Carter, however, reacted automatically to another man trying to hug him and quickly jumped back. This was equivalent to refusing to shake hands. No wonder we couldn't keep the Canal.
Culture shock is like the measles; it takes awhile to incubate. During the first weeks and months, one goes through a honeymoon stage. The people are so friendly, so helpful. The scenery is so breath-taking. The differences that are noticed are usually of a very superficial level and tend only to make things more exotic and exciting.
Then the new wears off. People get tired of carting you around. They get tired of intervening for you and shielding you. It begins to dawn on you just how different things really are and that you are on your own. The language turns out to be more difficult than you had expected. You are gently introduced to some of the blunders you have already made and you feel like someone just let all the air out of all four of your tires. Suddenly the honeymoon is over and the world of reality comes crashing down around you.
What Is Language Shock and Culture Shock Really Like? It is not knowing how to ask where the bathroom is and this after being hit with Montezuma's Revenge. It is being given an answer about the bathroom and not understanding.
It is being corrected in what you say by a six-year-old. . .like the daughter of a preacher in Guatemala who laughed because I had failed to trill my "r". I had said aroz instead of arroz. I felt hurt. I had tried to trill my "r". I had done my best; I felt it was really not my fault that I couldn't produce a nice trilled "r". I felt like they were laughing at someone with a birth defect.
It is not knowing when to shake hands, when to rise, when to sit, and knowing that if you don't do the right thing you will probably offend someone.
It is being laughed at and made fun of because of something you said or did. You try to get an explanation, but no one can answer because they're laughing so hard. They try to explain but you don't understand. So you just stand there with a sheepish, silly grin on your face wishing you could disappear. It's like the missionary who told the immigration officials that his occupation was pecador instead of predicador. He had told them that he was a sinner instead of telling them that he was a preacher.
It is the continual frustration of not being able to express yourself; the continual frustration of not understanding what is said to you. It is not knowing for sure whether to answer with yes or no. One missionary said he finally learned how to respond with the Spanish equivalent of "You don't say." This answer seemed to fit almost any question.
It is the embarrassment you feel when something you have said has resulted in a most undesirable slang or vulgar expression. For example, a Peace Corps volunteer attended a local fiesta (party) and one of the village girls asked him if he would like to dance. Since he had on his heavy work boots, he kindly refused. In his poor Spanish he explained that he could not dance with boots. All that was fine except that he mispronounced the word for "boots: and was understood to have said, "Sorry, but I can't dance with prostitutes." However, "prostitutes" is a nice translation of the word that he was understood to have used.
There's also the example of the U.S. girl who was staying with a Guatemalan family while learning Spanish. She spent the night with one of her girlfriends, and the next day she explained to the Guatemalan family that she had spent the night with a friend -- but she used the masculine form of the word friend instead of the feminine. Thus she explained that she had spent the night with her boyfriend.
It is the frustration of not knowing what to say when meeting people; when to say thanks, how to receive and issue invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not to. This example comes from Africa: A single missionary girl accepted the gift of a chicken and found out later that by so doing she was engaged to be married.
It is not being able to express your own humor nor being able to understand theirs. I remember feeling so stupid trying to make a joke and then having people look at me with a blank stare. I know of a missionary who really makes the nationals laugh but the trouble is they are seldom laughing at the same thing. The real frustration here is knowing that you are humorous and cute and funny but no one knows it. Not only are you no longer funny but you have trouble understanding a joke. Or even worse, when you do understand it, it doesn't seem that funny.
It is the nagging fear that you'll never be able to learn the language. One day you think you are really making progress and the next you seem to be unable to say anything.