Episode 102 – Language Saves Lives

Language Saves Lives | Episode 102 | Norah Jones, Its About Language
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 102 - Language Saves Lives

“The alternatives [to using language and cultural understanding in a conflict] would’ve probably been financially and morally expensive and we just didn’t have to go there.” Scott Womack, Episode 98

For this podcast’s post, I’m providing the full transcript HERE, versus below, so you can also see the concepts unfold in writing — my guests’ contributions to this topic, and my commentary on it, as a “verbal post.”

Norah Jones (introduction)

Norah Jones: Well, language saves lives, huh? That’s a pretty dramatic title, but I think they are dramatic times, and that language, which is the human miracle, is indeed the way that we address dramatic times and create opportunities and possibilities for the flourishing of both individuals and the societies in which they live. You know, in this series of podcasts since September of 2020, I’ve had a lot of educators on board. I myself am an educator by accident, although my mother would say that I was a natural born educator because I like to explain things from the very beginning. But I would like to mention that the word “educate” in English comes from “educare,” that is to say pull out, to pull out. And I believe that what we’re pulling out when we educate, whether we’re professional educators or folks just being together in the world, that when we educate, we are pulling out what individuals including small children already have inside, as well as connecting that which has been pulled out from individuals with each other, connecting individuals in the world, again, through language or languages. There’s strength in that. You know, my dad got many opportunities as a refugee immigrant from Eastern Europe because he dedicated himself to becoming multi-lingual, once he realized that there were educational opportunities here as a refugee in the United States.

Because of my father, I as a first generation American citizen got to see and be in different cultures and recognize the power of language in his life, and when I was just having fun with it when I was younger, recognized the joy in language, too. Now, those phrases, his opportunities and connectedness and joy are all about the various things that we’ve been taking a look at along these 100-plus podcast episodes. As we begin then on why I would take a look as language as a life-saving aspect of humanity, let’s review just for a moment what we learned in Episode 101 with Bennett Whitehouse about well-being that comes from the use of language, but also the actual financial costs that can come when language is not used to support the well-being of individuals.

Bennett Whitehouse Episode 101

Bennett Whitehouse: So, I work in the commercial property and casualty insurance industry, and a large piece of the claims volume that we see with our clients is workers’ compensation claims, so employee injuries. So that might manifest in my job, in terms of working with HR folks and supervisors and training them on, “Hey, so your employee comes to you and reports an injury, what’s your first question?” And some of them might say, “Did it happen at work?” And I ask them, “Well, how’s the employee gonna feel if that’s your first question? They’re gonna immediately sense the skepticism in you, and sense that maybe you’re trying to sniff out fraud on their behalf and their behavior.” A better question would be, “Oh my goodness! Are you okay? Tell me what happened.” So language is a key just in coaching people on their interpersonal relationship. So fun fact when it comes to workers compensation, especially, you might think that the cost of a medical claim related to a workplace injury would correlate highest with the severity of the injury. That’d probably be a pretty good assumption.

Norah Jones: I would assume that.

Bennett Whitehouse: The reality is the industries recognize that the highest corollary to the cost of a workers’ compensation claim is actually the quality of the relationship between the injured employee and their direct supervisor.

Norah Jones: Wow!

Bennett Whitehouse: [chuckle] Yeah. So how that supervisor treats and communicates with their direct reports can significantly influence all sorts of different things, but generally, just the quality of that relationship and how that plays out across any different type of interaction. And the language they choose to use with those people, whether it’s empathetic, caring and compassionate, or gruff, rough, harsh treatment and everything in between, makes a huge difference in [chuckle] that employee’s quality of life in the workplace.

Norah Jones (reflection)

Norah Jones: So, let’s make sure we got that. The supervisor’s communication skills with direct reports and teams can create a caring and compassionate quality of life in the workforce, or you can do the opposite.

In Episode 48, my friend and coach, Jacque Merritt, a Strengths Coach for the Gallup organization makes an important point about the clarity of communication, that is to say, our specific use of language, especially as leaders, to create this kind of environment that Bennett Whitehouse referred to. When we pay attention to others through language attentiveness and effective use, we increase productivity and prosperity and well-being and mitigate risks. Let’s listen to Jacque Merritt, Gallup CliftonStrengths Coach from Episode 48.

Jacque Merritt (Episode 48)

Jacque Merrit: I mean sometimes we think that people know our intentions, but they don’t. They only see our behavior. They judge us, they thin slice us from watching our behavior, and then they make a story about us. That story is usually wrong. They don’t really see our deepest desires and beliefs. I work a lot with leaders on communication. How do you share who you are? How do you share what’s important to you? How do you share your values? How do you make sure that the values that you espouse are the values that you live and the values that people see every day in your behavior?

Being able to listen allows for more collaboration, more partnership, and ultimately stronger organizations and higher productivity.

Norah Jones (reflection)

Norah Jones: Well, a dramatic title, and so far it’s been about higher productivity and lower costs and well-being, it feels great. And then, of course, that is what good quality understanding of use of paying attention to language can do for organizations and communities and companies. But what happens when there’s not an effort, a commitment or an understanding of the reality of human language is central to our identity and well-being and our desire to participate?

The founder and CEO of Avant Assessment, David Bong, spoke to us in Episode 9, about a very dramatic experience early in his language and culture career, where those who felt that they were not being understood and not being honored in either their language or their culture, decided to see if they could engage in extortion of their company. Let’s listen to the story that David tells of what happens when language is dishonored.

David Bong (Episode 9)

David Bong: Well, there’s often a gap between management of international companies and their workforces. So in Japan, there are a large number of international firms from the west primarily who would send over managers from Europe or the US or wherever. And they generally were expert in the company culture of a company, but they didn’t speak Japanese or have much background in Japanese culture. And generally, or we would frequently see, not generally, but we would often see that these managers would surround themselves with people who spoke really good English. And these were usually, in our experience, not the most capable people necessarily in the company. Some of the most capable people didn’t speak English that well, and/or they were shy or whatever, but they did not rise to the level where they would be advising the CEO. And so this gap was created and the CEO didn’t understand what was going on in the company. The bulk of the company was not comfortable with decisions being made by management. And there would, in many cases, be some kind of a problem that emerged. We saw a number of really big cases where the employees basically rebelled and threatened to expose company secrets.

Norah Jones: Wow.

David Bong: And extorted the company. So our job was to go in and find out who were the bad guys. But in fact, that is sort of an interesting term because the problem was being caused largely by poor management. It was also interesting that management generally had it wrong as to who the bad guys were.

Norah Jones (reflection)

Norah Jones: Wow. Extortion. That’s pretty extreme, right? Well, actually, my friends, the precipice is something we can all fall off of when we don’t know about language and culture and its impact on individuals’ well-being and the well-being of communities, societies and nations. That precipice is very high, very real. And that falling into the precipice happens whenever human beings meet when they don’t communicate.

In Episode 74, Founder and CEO of Freestyle Languages, Elizabeth Mack spoke to us about the enormous risks that come to individuals and companies through a lack of understanding of language and the culture in which language lives. She talks about retention and about safety, as well as productivity. Listen again, as Elizabeth Mack of Freestyle Languages speaks about the incredible return on investment in language understanding.

Elizabeth Mack (Episode 74)

There’s such an incredible return on investment for organizations and corporations to invest in language, you know, the data was already out there, Harvard Business Review, all these. Everybody knows what, at least who’s paying attention to science, why there’s a return on investment for organizations. But the fact that many are coming to us is really a great, great honor, and so it’s allowing us to specialize in these industries, particularly where there’s the largest language gap, which is in the construction industry, and that ACTFL has actually identified it. The ACTFL research, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, they identified the industries with the largest gaps, I think it was a 2019 research. And the construction industry is widely known as the industry with the largest gaps, and those language gaps present enormous risks for them and issues, in terms of retention for their teams, safety for their teams, certainly in the construction industry. And then in the last two years, it’s also become a lot more about DEI initiatives, and rightly so. So I’m so impressed and honored to see these national and large international corporations investing in language so that they can create empathy on their teams, and they’re doing it.

DPR Construction, I’ve got to shout-out to them because they have teams in all four time zones in the United States, connecting through Spanish and English. And their craft, as they’re called, who are out there, those hot days building those buildings, tune in to our English classes. Specifically, English for Spanish speakers is one of our niches in the construction industry. And they tune in because for them, they understand it’s a path to wage equity and an opportunity and a life skill, and the company understands that to be able to retain their teams, is to invest in their people and increase communication and increase safety.

Norah Jones (reflection)

Norah Jones: Okay, I think that it’s appropriate at this point to address specifically the concept of monolingualism, we’ve been kind of dancing around that here, monolingualism, that is the ability to speak only one language. Monolingualism limits everyone, but especially leaders and managers. You know, historically speaking, I mean, for centuries, millennia, those who have been scrapping for work, workers have often been learning additional languages in order to get jobs, hold on to jobs, stay in a new location and survive. They may learn a new language thoroughly, they may learn it just enough to get by, but they understand that multilingualism has a practical purpose in their lives to survive and to thrive. Multilingualism is actually what humans do, but sometimes when folks are in leadership position, they don’t recognize the limitations that monolingualism is imposing on them, because they’re already in a leadership position, they’re not, if I may put it this way, as hungry for survival. However, monolingual leaders should be hungry for survival.

The reason why I’m putting this podcast together today, because monolingual leaders both short themselves out of their own leadership flexibility and understanding and relationships, and they’re also… And I’m going to be frank here, they’re fooling themselves if they think that those that are multilingual are not going to go ahead and use their languages in order to keep themselves safe, in order to keep themselves productive, in order to keep themselves energized. That’s also what languages do. I went back to my researcher friend, Steven Sacco, and asked him what he thought of some of the things that Bennett Whitehouse and others had said about the nature of languages, multilingualism and monolingualism for leaders, and he had, among other things, this to say.

Steven Sacco (additional conversation; original podcast Episode 71)

Steven Sacco: Well, I’m thinking about… There’s one thing that Bennett said that made so much sense, and if you were talking to corporate leaders about the fact that communication is what’s important, not which language we officially use. In other words, patriotism and waving the flag, that’s got to be put aside to what is going to enhance productivity. … their language policy in francophone Africa, for example, or the rice mill in Northern California, which stretches out to 400 different mills and processing plants throughout the United States for this company which didn’t want me to identify, basically, is that you’ve got to allow people to go with the flow.

And the flow is when they’re with their counterparts and other French-speaking customers and suppliers, et cetera, let them speak French or Wolof or whatever language. Obviously, there can be no communication if we just simply rule out English altogether. It is “a” language, “a” lingua franca of business, it’s not “the” lingua franca of business, at least not in Africa. So it seems like these companies are saying, “Okay, as long as they continue to produce, let’s leave them alone and let them work at their own leisure.”

There’s a whole wealth of information from studies that talk about how disgruntled managers who were not able to work bilingually, will go find a company that will allow them to work bilingually.

Norah Jones (reflection)

Norah Jones: So we’ve been addressing costs and productivity and safety and risks, both financial and physical, and opportunities and quality of life through all language lens. And does the title then saves lives maybe reflect hyperbole on my part? I would say no, already, because quality of life issues can lead to persons living or dying as individuals and the success or failure of companies and thereby reflecting the success or failure of families and communities. But I am going to turn to those true life and death issues that come with such areas as in this case, National Security. In Episode 98 educator and Foreign Area Officer with the US Army, Scott Womack, spoke about the importance of using the eyes and ears and understanding of language and culture to keep security flowing in situations around the globe. Much like Jackie Merritt, whom you heard from earlier, the listening aspect, which means the language, understanding and application in action plays a very strong part. Let’s listen to Scott Womack in this first excerpt of his from Episode 98.

Scott Womack (Episode 98)

Scott Womack: Since I was kind of approaching it from an operational standpoint we kind of looked at a spectrum or continuum and the more profound a leader’s engagement with the local population meant the more language proficiency, regional knowledge and cultural competence that leader would need. So as a foreign area officer, where I’m dealing at, frankly with kind of diplomatic strategic level things, I need to be quite, if not fluent, extremely proficient in French, an ILR three or four, three plus four, something like that, very proficient. But also, and as much as it’s a diplomatic function, also with the intercultural competence piece. If I can’t see their point of view, if I can’t have some empathy for where my counterpart’s coming from, I will not be able to be effective as a negotiator with them.

We were trying to figure out at what level do which leaders need how much language, how much cultural competence, and how much kind of regional knowledge facts, and kind of came down on the one that needed to be strong across the board was the intercultural competence part. Because so much of that is observing, using your two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two hands to intake information rather than your one mouth to constantly be putting out information.

Norah Jones (reflection)

Norah Jones: That’s what language does. It keeps us aware. It keeps us safe. It can keep us at peace. Scott also shares though, a war story.

In this excerpt, you will recognize that full-blown fighting and death was averted for humans in conflict from the United States and various other countries through the understanding of language and the culture in which it lives.

Scott Womack, Episode 98, his war story.

Scott Womack (Episode 98)

Scott Womack: So, you know, the fairy tales start with once upon a time, and war stories start with there we were. So there we were. I was the US Defense Attache assigned to N’Jamena, Chad, and also covered the neighboring country of Central African Republic. And at the time Central African Republic had a civil war going on and a group of armed rebels from the northern part of the country were moving south towards the Capital. And I got a phone call one Sunday saying, you need to get here because the fighting is reaching the outskirts of the city, and we need to figure out what do we do next. Do we stay, do we leave, what’s the plan?

And the initial reaction was typical, let’s do something, let’s seize a quarter from the airport to the embassy and get people out that way. Or let’s float people down the river, the river was at our back, down to a safe location and disembarked them off of rafts or inflatable boats in a safe place in Congo where they could pick them up.

And the trouble with those was, of course, the first option was gonna be costly, financially costly and lives. The second option, by then we had agreed to take the Japanese and the British and the Canadians with us, a couple of them were elderly and just couldn’t see putting them in a zodiac boat for that long of a ride. So we kind of, the ambassador and I asked our respective leaders if we could have some time, a couple of days, to just negotiate an exit with the various people between us and the airport, if they’d just let us go without having to do any big deployments. And to Washington’s credit, they said, yes, let’s give it a try.

I went and talked to the Gunslingers, which were the presidential security guard who were regular trained soldiers, the rebels who were definitely not, and the Libyans who were also trained soldiers. And at every stop I had to recalibrate both my level of French and how I approach these guys culturally. And I don’t mean cultural as in the culture of Congo, culturally as who they represented. So the soldiers, the security guards, soldiers speak and were disciplined, and we could talk like soldier to soldier. The rebels were mostly teenagers with guns, that’s a different conversation, and then the Libyans were at the time pretty hostile to the United States, and that was a third different conversation to have. And thanks to my training and experience, and I just, just kind of a willingness to be quiet and listen and observe we were able to make deals with all three groups. And the day of the departure, we rolled straight through, no gunfire, no crazy things. A C-130 aircraft landed from US Air Force, picked us up and flew us to Cameron, and it went off without a hitch. And it’s one of my proudest moments just because the alternatives would’ve probably been financially and morally expensive and we just didn’t have to go there.

Norah Jones (final reflection)

Norah Jones: We just didn’t have to go there. We didn’t have to go to war because of language and cultural understanding. And we didn’t have to go there taking that financial hit for an employee injured, not only in body, but also in spirit. We didn’t have to go there and losing that great worker, that great manager, that account, that opportunity. What we did go to was well-being, inclusion, security, prosperity, accomplishment, peace, being able to grow into a more effective human, individually, more effective societies, and a more calm world. Language and culture are absolutely essential in order to accomplish these things. We take a look when educational systems are not permitted or are not encouraged or not funded, in order to be able to provide this language exposure to those young people who will, through education at Ducara, pull out of themselves their deepest humanity and connect that humanity to others.

We’re not talking about a nice thing to think about for those that have the time, we are thinking, as this journey today has taken us, we are thinking about language as the survival and productive experience of humanity, and that which keeps people from, frankly, killing each other. Let’s take a look around us in our institutions and in our families and in our communities and say to ourselves, “How can we make sure that each person understands languages and how to listen and how to speak, so that they can bring out from themselves their deepest humanity and connect to others?” Language saves lives. Let’s do it together for the future of all.

Enjoy the podcast. 

Click to listen:

Scroll down for full transcript.

Thank you for always focusing on the possibilities, opportunities and the power of language and what it can do for us individually - and collectively!

Elizabeth Mack

If you've never done #cliftonstrengths, yourself or with your team, don't wait any longer.  Norah Jones of FLUENCY CONSULTING is the one and only to do it! It's all about your super powers: finding & using them to affect positive change in the world. What's not to love?!

Elizabeth Mack
Founder and CEO / Freestyle Languages


Yes, @NorahLulicJones definitely has the talent of "bringing out" the best in others or allowing them to showcase themselves in the best light! Thank you for directing the spotlight on others who have great stories and talents to share with others. 

Lisa Fore


Your podcasts are exceptionally relevant and applicable, thought-provoking and insightful, easy-to-follow and enjoyable!  

Paul Sandrock
Senior Advisor for Language Learning Initiatives / ACTFL


You have an immense talent to draw the best from your participants. 

Richard Brecht


Norah knows how to LISTEN - she really "hears" the message - and the interview is richer because of it.  New questions come from the hearing. 

Terri Marlow

Want to hear more? Access previous episodes, and get to know the wonderful people I talk with through the It’s About Language page, or by clicking on the Podcast tab above. You can also find this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.

As a certified Gallup Strengths coach, I can provide you or your organization personalized coaching to discover and build on your strengths.

I provide workshops, presentations, and talks that inspire and engage through powerful language insights, and I pair those insights with practical applications for the lives of educators, learners, businesses, and faith-centered organizations. I’d love to share ideas with your organization or group, and develop an event tailored to your objectives.

Click here to start a conversation.

Become a Sponsor

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: