Post C: The Language Door

Growing up monolingual, and thoroughly established in the cultural bubble of Sydney’s North Shore, other languages seemed separate worlds; they were magical. Not quite so magical that I insisted upon learning, apparently, but enough that by it I could foster my cultural ignorance. Yet my childhood fantasy was quickly dispelled when first I tried conversation with a non-English speaker. Less magical world, more inescapable frustration; language showed itself as the portal to the places I imagined.

Image result for magical door

This was the frustration Indah faced in answering my questions on life in Banjarmasin. ‘Sorry’ was offered often, as she blamed her English for the trials in our communication, despite my Bahasa Indonesian vocabulary of twenty words. Still, by her efforts I gleaned that Banjarmasin is an unusually friendly city, and that the anti-tobacco movement is close to the hearts of many of her peers. That Allah is deeply important to her, and she enjoys studying health care. Yet the opportunity for two university students, from utterly different cultural contexts, to share detailed insights on their political views was completely lost.

Thankfully, my own lingual competency did not completely inhibit my education. After a few minutes of very gradual conversation, we were joined by Vania, a proficient English speaker. As she explained the position of the locals toward the tobacco industry, more of Banjarmasin, the city and the culture were unfolded before me.

In my early research, before arriving in Indonesia, the theories offered by [Johnson et al. 2003] and [Chang et al. 2006] insisted that peer pressure and rebellion are key factors in motivating youth to adopt smoking, but our conversation affirmed that this data was relevant, at least anecdotally, in Banjarmasin too. Her explanation of Islam revealed the cultural significance of wearing the hijab, and the internalised value she experiences for her effort in Allah’s name. Theory became relevant and, gradually, in conjunction with my experiences throughout Banjarmasin, a cultural tapestry is woven.

Yet, as a designer, cultural comprehension is not simply an end in itself [Chitturi 2008]; it becomes the instrument of intercultural design. Indeed, mirroring Friedman’s methodology, the learning offered by quality communication throughout the conversation informed the cultural comprehension necessary for sensitive, and thus effective, design [Friedman 1996]. As the bulk of our team’s design work was complete, rather than altering the designs already established, it informed sensitive design by elucidating the limitations of our work and informing future process.

Syarifah illustrated, by her narrative of Banjarmasin culture, the capacity of design to expound the limits of language and culture, whilst insisting, too, upon the necessity of strong communication. Each feed the other, such that when culture is heard by design, design speaks the louder for it. Less cultural disconnection, more magical world.



Chang C., Lee, M., Lai, R., Chiang, T., Lee, H., Chen, W. 2006, ‘Social influences and self-efficacy as predictors of youth smoking initiation and cessation: a 3-year longitudinal study of       vocational high school students in Taiwan’, Addiction, vol. 101, no.1, pp. 1645-55.

Chitturi, R., Raghunathan, R., Mahajan V. 2008, ‘Delight by Design: The Role of Hedonic Versus    Utilitarian Benefits’, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 48-63.

Friedman, B. 1996, ‘Value-sensitive design’, Interaction, vol. 3, no. 6, pp. 16-23

Johnson, J. L., Bottorff, J. L., Moffat, B., Ratner, P. A., Shoveller, J. A., Lovatoc, C. Y. 2003, ‘Tobacco dependence: adolescents’ perspectives on the need to smoke’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 56, no. 7.

P.S. Names are false, to protect interviewee identity.

One thought on “Post C: The Language Door

  1. Interesting how the people in the hosting country are apologetic in regards to their shortcomings in an additional language – that’s not the sort of thing I’ve seen much of in Australia. As a foreigner, it’s really your problem if you don’t speak the local language, not the other way round!

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