As a polyglot, I love the feeling of talking to and understanding people who come from communities all over the world. I feel a visceral buzz when I successfully connect. From my teens to my twenties I pursued this bliss from continent to continent. Where does this elation come from? Language overcomes an existential gap between me and others, fulfilling my need to connect with people and seeing the world through another’s eyes.
Separated from each other
We are cut off from each other’s thoughts by an existential gap. Humans can only experience their thoughts first-hand, subjectively. The outside world must be sensed objectively and then translated into subjective thoughts before we can experience it. For example, I know what I see of the outside world because the light enters my eyes, triggering sensory receptors that connect to my brain. Once a sight hits my brain and becomes thought, then I can experience the outside world.
Encountering another human being complicates my situation because we can’t experience each other’s subjective thoughts–and this can be frustrating, even leading to despair. I have to translate my thoughts into something that the other person can sense objectively and translate into his or her own subjective thoughts, and vice-versa. Only when we translate our thoughts for each other can we feel that we’ve connected.
Human beings long for and benefit from this connection. Our language and literature are full of these longings. We want to be understood; we want to connect; we want friendship; we want love. As people come from different ways of thinking and unique experiences, this encounter can broaden our view of the world as we see anew through another’s eyes. When I feel that I’m not understanding another or the other doesn’t understand me, deep longing, anxiety, or even terror can well up. Once we’ve felt that we connected with another, we tend to feel strong emotion and loyalty towards that person. We’ve overcome the existential gap.
Language bridges gap between us
Language endows us with the means to overcome that gap, even helping us to connect to the divine. With language we can connect in profound ways; without language we languish alone. People speak of other sorts of deep connection, but language always plays a part. Sex connects people strongly, but sex always includes connecting through language, from the pick-up line to “Was it good for you?” We desire to experience the other’s thoughts, and we require that the other translate his or her subjective thoughts into language. Language always accompanies the experience as our need to connect and bridge the existential gap drives us.
My grandmother lost her self when she lost language. She had a stroke at age 85, from which she lost her ability to speak and read. When she spoke her aphasia confused her words so that her language came out as nonsense, and so she lost he ability to bridge her existential gap. In two years, she could no longer take the suffering and at age 87 stopped eating until she passed away. Standing at the existential gap with no bridge led to an ultimate existential crisis.
Coming to a new country with a new culture and unfamiliar language, bridging the existential gap is frustrating, even to the point of anguish. One cannot express oneself and cannot grasp others’ thoughts. Even gestures can differ cross-culturally, so one cannot even count on that rudimentary medium of communication to bridge the gap. Without knowledge of language and culture, despondency waits on our side of the gap.
The deepest aspects of religion require language to convey their truths. The Abrahamic religions esteem a sacred book filled with words from the deity. The ancient Babylonians understood that the gods “wrote” messages in sheep livers and in the flight of birds, and the trained human could discern the thoughts of the gods through these means. Native Americans teach basic religious truths through oral stories. Even Jewish mystics derive ineffable truths from the language of the Torah, and then express it in the language of poetry. Language, therefore, bridges not only the gap between humans, but between humans and the numinous. (I borrowed this idea from Rene Girard.)
Need for connection drives my language love
Like everyone else, I wait at the existential gap, ready to move across it. When I’m stuck, I can’t understand others, and they don’t get me, I get frustrated. When I find a way to express myself clearly, when I finally discern another’s thoughts, that connection exhilarates me.
More languages, more travel, more friends offer me multiple fora for experiencing that exhilaration. As a polyglot I can always find new, exciting ways to understand and be understood. Significantly, the more exotic the language, the more euphoria I experience. I prefer speaking and conversation to reading and writing in languages because the buzz of bridging the gap comes more immediately when I speak with a liver person. Yet studying ancient languages allows me the only way to enter into the minds of those long dead, as well.
The love of languages is the euphoria of bridging the gap. I realize that I am not alone in my thoughts, but connected to others. New languages offer means of connecting with new people and seeing the world in new ways. Novelty and fulfilling my need for connection drive me through love to continue to learn languages.