Acculturation: Being Childlike or Childish?

Maryknoll Institute of African Studies of St. Mary's University

by Michael Kirwen

In one of the course evaluations, a foreign student wrote that the MIAS program treated the participants in a childish way with all the rules and regulations and constant repetition about the manner and ways of encountering African culture on its own terms. Another foreign student in the same session remarked how tightly knit and helpful the guidelines and format of the program were for facilitating entrance into the structures of the African mind set. Why the divergent views? The response to this question is rooted in the nature of cross-cultural communication.

To enter into another's cultural world in a fundamental way, one must become like a child. Indeed, in the beginning one does not know how to say "Hello," or how to greet properly or even the names of the most common things that surround one's daily life. One has to ask "what is this, what is that, how do you do this, how do you say that, etc.," and usually these questions have to be repeated a number of times before the information sinks in and becomes familiar. At the same time, this does not mean that one becomes childish.

In the one case, the foreign student was able to let go of prior expectations and approach African cultural knowledge through the format of the program with the attitude of an eager-to-learn child, realizing that repetition and guidelines were a critical part of the learning process. This student was fully challenged and transformed by the MIASMU experience.