Thursday, January 13, 2011

Same world, different glasses

the following was published by Global Study Magazine (Jan. 2007) and appears on the web here, but is backed up on this site for my convenience. -TL

Learning another language can give you a new understanding of the way you see the world. By Thomas Leverett

When you learn a new language, you will accept the idea that this language may categorize things differently than you're used to. For example, if you're learning Japanese, you'll find that there are two different words for water, depending on whether it is hot or cold, and you'll have to decide which one to use every time you want to talk about water. In some languages, names for family members are categorized first by whether they are father's side, or mother's side. Sometimes you'll say, "This is curious... I never thought of it this way!"

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis went so far as to say that your language influences your perception, or even, in a strong version, that it determines your perception of reality. This hypothesis fell out of favor in the 1960's, has been considered "dead" and has been called a "hoax" many times. But it has never really disappeared. If you go abroad and learn another language, you can decide for yourself whether you believe it's true.

For example, you may be learning a language, like Korean, in which you are expected to use different grammar when speaking to people, depending on whether they are older than you, younger than you, or the same age. Therefore, in order to function well and comfortably, you must learn someone's age before you begin a friendship with them. Or imagine coming the other way, learning English, but knowing that not only will you not need that information, but in fact it may be rude to ask someone his or her age too quickly in a friendship. It may be easier to teach yourself not to ask such a question, than to teach yourself not to feel like you need that information. If knowing age has helped you understand people all your life, it can be pretty difficult getting by without knowing it, and in fact not even being able to find out quickly!

Do you believe that the language you speak every day has influenced what you understand as real? If the language determines that you give someone status, and then you open doors for them, allow them to eat first, etc., then it may at least have influenced the way you live and the things you do.

I was once in a small Korean village, and saw a young boy about to step into a construction manhole in a main street.

He had been looking in shock, at me, possibly because he had never seen a beard like mine, but had not been looking at where he was walking. I yelled out "Be careful!" in the only Korean I knew, but was immediately corrected by an old man nearby who informed me that I should never use a respectful form with a young boy. What struck me about the incident was that the man commented on the language error so quickly, when in fact there were many other things he could have commented on.

Another time, I was shooting a basketball in a courtyard where some boys were also shooting baskets. I was impressed by the fact that when my ball came toward one of the boys, he actually let his own go in order to catch mine and return it to me. I was an honored guest, so even my ball seemed to have a status that changed his behavior.

In both cases their responses were instinctive, natural, based on a view of an ordered world where politeness and level are built into every interaction. I was humbled, both by how well I was treated as a guest, and also by how profoundly a different culture can actually change the way you act, the way you see your world, and the way you understand the people in it.

One could say, of course, that the second incident had nothing to do with language - that both language and politely deferential behavior come from the same cultural interpretation of reality, which precedes both. I would argue that the language so quickly and profoundly reinforces that interpretation, that it becomes a frame in which we develop our understanding of people and our world. Learning another language, then, can give us a profound new understanding of other people and the way they see the world. This is one reason people are almost never sorry that they went abroad, or went to so much trouble to learn one.

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