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Multi-Cultural Ethnic Groups: A Communication Strategy
Ethnic Group Identification and Communication Strategy Approaches for Multi-Lingual, Multi-Cultural or International People Segments

In this article the terms people group and ethnic group are used more or less interchangeably.  The term ethnic segment is used somewhat interchangeably, but more specifically; it normally refers to a smaller division within an ethnic/people group.  Likewise the term segment generally refers to an identifiable social grouping across the broader society.

Orville Boyd Jenkins

In trying to implement a culturally sensitive approach to a people group, challenges sometimes arise when encountering a multi-lingual people group. Likewise in determining effective communication strategies, we must give more than passing consideration to multi-cultural groupings made up of segments of different ethnic groups who speak the same language.

The English-language setting of some work assignments makes it difficult to determine the appropriate language for community access. This is critical in situations where deep decisions are involved, such as changes in social structures, behavior or basic worldview concepts.

Even with an individual ethnic group (people group), international settings present situations which do not fit the simple "tribal" concept of "people group."  Particularly this is true for service to international populations in Europe, where the only common language is English.

Often there are also many local languages in one setting, making it difficult to concentrate on or gain consistent practice and support in one language while carrying out the job assignment effectively with others of a different language group. Usually English is not the mother tongue (native language) of any of the people segments that otherwise make up a common "international" group.

Here are some thoughts on the planning of strategy for international, multi-cultural or multi-lingual populations.

Basic Question

The basic strategy approach is:

What language is needed to effect deep community commitment ("buy-in") to a new concept or practice for an identified people or segment? In some cases this might be English. In international settings, the common integrating factor of a multi-lingual and multi-cultural grouping is often in the common international language.  This language is often also the primary (most-used) language of many in each associated ethnic group of the international setting.

Additionally English (or other international tongue) is often the mother tongue or primary (most-used) language of the children in all segments of the international group. Thus we may see the early transitional stages of a new multi-ethnic people group in the making. See Cities and Peoples by this author.

The specific national, linguistic or ethnic groups comprising the larger international segment may offer additional defining characteristics for the larger international group as a whole.

Strategy Steps

(1) identify the target group: ethnic group, age group or social group

This will involve both formal and informal research to learn who the people group as a whole are. Standard people group profile formats may be used, even for a particular social segment.  Such profile formats can be enhanced with any sociological and demographic tools and information. Ideally a worldview investigation will be conducted over a long period of relationship.

This is the same procedure in principle for a multi-cultural or international group as for a unitary tribe or ethnic group. A more complex multi-cultural group, however, will require more careful investigation to understand its segments and sub-identities, which are identified by the same factors as any ethno-linguistic group and its various socio-economic segments.

Much of this is accomplished through initial language learning in the community setting. Language, social interaction and underlying worldview values are all intertwined and will be involved in the overall interaction with the ethnic community or segment. Where English is the common language of the target group, more intense focus can be placed on the cultural worldview investigation.

Identification in a people group format would identify common factors like:
                        Displacement in a foreign country.
                        Necessity to use a language other than the mother tongue (aside from what the mother tongue is).
                        Education of children in international school, often English.
                        Temporariness of location or situation.
                        Need for job training, etc.

(2) determine what language serves as the primary vehicle of social interaction and cultural exchange for that group.

An early finding of strategy step 1 will involve this step. In this stage it is helpful to identify secondary languages or specific languages of sub-groups. This is particularly critical in multi-cultural people groups or urban multi-cultural segments.

Where the access worker is already fluent in the target language or national language, efforts should be focused on culture-intensive learning. Much of the worldview will be learned this way through participation in the life of the people in ever-deepening levels and ever-widening circles of experience and relationship.

(3) design a strategy based on the findings, with ongoing revision and development as more insight is gained into the culture and felt needs of the community.  The change agent or communicator must know the worldview of the people to make an effective impact in the culture and social life of the people.

By worldview we mean the shared mental concepts of the unseen universe at large and how the individual and society relate to it.  This is where basic beliefs and commitments lie.

Life decisions are made in this deep worldview level of self-identity, in the heart language.

Where English is the common language of the multi-cultural or international community, the strategy will ideally focus on cultural identity and integration of the access worker into the community, just as for any other ethnic group. It might entail learning a language of a representative sub-group of the group. Perhaps this will be the national language of the host country of that international community (e.g., German in Germany, French in France), or the language of a large international group in the larger international community (e.g., English in a European country).

(4) design an entry orientation program to equip the minister for that cultural setting, using the identified language as the medium for cultural orientation

A cultural Entry Orientation will include cultural investigation and community contact experiences through the medium of one primary language of the target people.  A company will recoup multiple returns for this critical but often overlooked first step in effectiveness in any cross-cultural situation.

This is more than a couple of hours of "Dos and Don'ts" tips during the first few hours of jet lag upon arrival! It involves serious cultural mentoring in a community setting, learning how to relate to the people on their own cultural terms.

Cultural Orientation
In the case of an international segment including identifiable ethnic segments, it is highly advantageous to conduct cultural orientation in the context of that community, through the language of that particular ethnic segment, or sub-group. This fosters identification with a representative ethnic segment of the larger multi-cultural or international population group.

This facilitates the relational factors necessary for culturally-appropriate communication, building of trust among the community, fostering ethnic awareness for the learner-worker, and enabling the learner-worker to gain social skills and to build relationships which might bring openness to the contribution or innovations of the foreign worker.

As identification is thereby earned with the chosen ethnic segment, entrees develop into the larger community, as credible visibility develops.

We must start with a focus on the people group or segment themselves.  Strategy is determined largely by the cultural identity of the people and their felt needs, and prior beliefs or values, focused on a worldview-sensitive approach and relationsihp-oriented focus.  Otherwise efforts will be superficial and ineffective.

Ideally, companies will prepare Life Descriptions (descriptions of the living and working situations and expectations) for cross-cultural access workers.  Such Life Descriptions will describe the basic beliefs structures and social concepts of the people group or population segment, providing the foundation for defining and implementing the specifics of meaningful cultural engagement, resulting in true communication and meaningful options for change.

Christian Agencies
For Christian aid and ministry agencies, the core value that expresses this culturally-appropriate approach is incarnational ministry. Thus gospel strategy aims at that basic level of human identity and worldview.

The ideal is a direct ministry in the heart language. In multi-lingual groups, relating and communicating at that level is complicated. This is even more complex in an international setting where many ethnic groups with different languages come together around a common international identity in an international language that is not a mother tongue to most.

Yet the deep decision-making level is still a given for the gospel access to the heart. This relational ministry is critical. This entails identification of the outsider/access worker with the target community, or a segment of it.

Where a language other than a mother tongue is the medium of communication we consider it a mediated ministry. This may be facilitated in a variety of ways, notably by a believer with the same mother tongue.

See Related Article
Ethnicity in the Cities
Culture, Learning and Communication
How to Do Research on the Web
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels
What is a People Group?
What is Worldview?


First written in 2000 in answer to a query arising in a workshop on cross-cultural communication
Finalized as an article for Thoughts and Resources Posted 28 October 2001
Last edited 5 May 2015

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
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Copyright © 2000, 2004 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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