Why do students complete four years of language class in the US and come out unable to carry on a conversation? Yet four months immersed in another country will make the language light bulb come on?
How can we say in our country that learning a language is important, yet English is the only language valued in schools that work to assimilate students of various cultures?
The answers are connected. We do not value non-English speaking communities–immersion without leaving home. As a result, we do not engage them. Language classes convey impractical, abstract information, when they are not linked to native speakers. Only when we value the marginalized communities of non-English speakers, will Americans begin to learn languages quickly and effectively.
I’m pleased that this blog received its 20,000th view on March 14, 2014. That means that on 20,000 occasions people have plugged into the greatest love of my life: languages and connecting with others. I have learned so much from writing this blog, and from the challenging comments I’ve received from commentors here and on Twitter.
Language is humans’ principle means to connect to each other, to come out of ourselves. I hope to continue to advocate for language love in every way I can, and to serve my readers in bringing us all together under the umbrella of language-love. In modern culture, languages are looked at narrowly–if at all. I want to provide my readers and my culture every reason and means to study languages as I possibly can.
“Like” or share so we can spread more language-love to even more people!
I read National Geographic a lot. Articles about people tend to interest me much more than science or nature. Photos and anecdotes keep me riveted. This week in Oromo class, I felt I was reading through National Geographic, reveling while learning about Oromo language, geography, and culture, both in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
My pleasure, however, is tinged with confusion and guilt. I feel like I’ve packaged up “Africa” for my US sensibility. The National Geographic Society was formed by and for US academics and wealthy patrons to talk about travel in the late 19th century–colonists. Suddenly, my pleasure of hearing and learning about the Oromo people was sullied by the colonial Orientalist and essentialist views from that class of people during the formation of the Society. How do I relate to them? Am I a new colonist or something else? To avoid “colonizing” Minnesota Africa, I must engage with human beings different from me, most importantly opening myself to them, in order to break down any potential elitist barriers.
My last Oromo class
In session 6, my last Oromo class, we covered several important and fascinating topics. We learned about some technical vocabulary. We received a list of technical linguistic vocabulary that we went over. It included some probably classic words, like afoola “oral literature,” but also some newer linguistic terms like xunda xiqqaa “minimal pair.”
I also brought some older textbooks and grammars, and the class enjoyed looking through them. The different books spoke of various dialects, so our teacher put a map of Ethiopia on the projector and pointed out where the main dialects came from. Not all the students knew of these regions and dialects, so it was fascinating for all of us. He also showed areas of Oromomia where the communities were mainly Muslim or mainly Christian.
Our teacher took us on a wonderful mental voyage, to a place that was very exotic for me. He recounted his days in the North of Ethiopia, in the Afar region. He said the weather was so hot–hot for someone from Ethiopia!–that you can live with a little water and a little food; you don’t need clothing. It was so hot that people brought eggs down from the highlands, and chickens hatched in the buckets. Life was a struggle, he said, but it was the most wonderful place on earth. The struggle made you feel alive.
The teacher and students taught me about Oromo diaspora. Evidently, there is a big community in Oslo, Norway, and Berlin, Germany. One of my classmates lived a while in Hamburg, Germany, before coming to the US, but the Hamburg Oromo community was small. My professor lived in Oslo for a time before the US. They have connections all over among active Oromo diaspora communities.
In the midst of all this cultural information, we still worked on language. We continued with practical vocabulary and spelling. It’s amazing how much our teacher was able to squeeze into the class time.
I asked about upcoming Oromo community activities, namely poetry and music. Fortunately, my teacher assured me that there are a lot of such events, and there’s one even coming up at the end of the month. I look forward to staying connected to the community and keeping up my language.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to take the next class, but I hope to stay in touch. Because of vacation and other events, I would have missed half the classes. I look forward to keeping in contact with my teacher and classmates. It’s important for me to see and understand the diversity of my city and community. I need wonderful folks like this to help me get outside of my own way of thinking and doing things. Plus I love my budding afaan oromoo (“Oromo language”).
A good colonist?
I believe that I am learning about Oromo people and language in a way that challenges my way of thinking, and new-found wisdom brings new joy. I don’t want to be a 19th century, salon-frequenting, traveler. Taking photos of the “natives” and discussing them in my comfortable home do not interest me.
I am a colonist who hopes to extract benefit from others, but different in that I hope the colonist is “civilized” and not at the expense of the colonized. I want to engage with them so that my comfort and my home change irreversibly. Wisdom and “civilization” will come to me if I open up my own ignorance and curiosity and learning. I want new ways to enjoy life and extract new joys that I learn from others. By challenging my way of thinking about life and language, my Oromo friends and teachers offer me new, unexpected joy.
Are you a consumer of language and culture? an observer? an engager?
Last week we got to visit some of our friends, and I discovered another young, aspiring polyglot. His name is Nicholas (funny that the other young language-lover I blogged about is named Nico, short for Nicholas) and he’s 7 years old. Since he still wakes up at an ungodly hour, his parents bought him Rosetta Stone Spanish for him to work one while everyone else is sleeping.
But Spanish is boring to him because “everyone else” learns Spanish. He wants to learn something that not so many people are learning, like Norwegian or Aramaic. (When I asked him if he prefers Ancient or Modern Aramaic, he said Ancient.) Like me, he prefers the obscure language.
What resources are there? I recommended Nico’s favorite website, Omniglot.com. Here you can find trivia about 600 or so languages. The author has created some silly cartoons in various languages. There is a lot of information about writing systems, too. Since Youtube is not safe for kids without adult supervision, Omniglot’s videos are nice to have.
I wonder what becomes of American children who love languages. Fortunately, his dad loves learning smatterings of languages and delving into the uniqueness of various cutlures. But I don’t know about other kids. Our society does not offer them many resources or rewards for following their passion. How often have you seen a child start speaking a non-native language to someone? Other than heritage speakers, I haven’t seen it. Does anyone have ideas to help keep Nicholas motivated?
I also read this article from Language magazine, called “From the Mouth of Babes” (Language, Angelika Putintseva, http://languagemagazine.com/?page_id=23275). Ms Putintseva is striving to offer an environment for small children to be exposed to and speaking multiple languages in her WorldSpeak Language Center daycares. The article states that kids can learn and speak Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian, and English. The education focuses on relationships and daily interactions rather than drills and exercises–the natural way that children learn languages. Ms Putintseva eventually hopes to expand this into a K-5 school.
I researched the school a bit, and a Russian-speaking friend of mine visited the daycare. Maybe some of the article may be too good to be true. The article was written by Ms Putintseva herself, so it may not be as objective as it could be. The school is not large, around 20 or so students, though I don’t know if those numbers are just for one campus or for both. I’m not sure if the French and Chinese programs are still running. Some on-line reviews (take them for what they’re worth) complain about moving teachers around between campuses arbitrarily. The program thus may not be as successful as it appears.
Assuming that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, I am on the balance happy that this daycare exists because we need places for people to socialize in multiple languages, even if just in pockets. I’m pleased that someone is trying to create an atmosphere where people can learn languages like this. I believe that something like this for adults is also necessary. Groups of multilingual folks exist where they socialize in and teach each other languages, but they are not so well known. They are a hobby get-together, not a widely-available teaching resource.
What are ways that we can get children more comfortable with a multilingual environment? even fluent in multiple languages? What are ways we can engage those who are already enthralled with languages?
I found that I have a thick skin at work. Sometimes people make fun of me behind my back, sometimes to my face. I found that I have a rare–if not unique–ability to ignore them. When other people might speak against me, I can pretend I didn’t hear the negative talk. As a result, I can focus on the future and on the positive, to be sure that we can keep doing what must be done. The tough situations I went through learning languages gifted me with this ability.
Recently I was moved by a Spanish-learner‘s post on Google+. She described how she worked with native Spanish-speakers who would make fun of her when she spoke Spanish. She was discouraged. I tried my best to comfort her by noting that I had been made fun of in multiple languages over a span of almost 25 years, on more occasions than I can count. Once I wrote this, I realized I had a rare experience–even a privilege!–that had strengthened me as a human being.
For example, when I lived in Ukraine, a classmate humiliated me in public. I was the only American in the class, and one of only two male students. Jealousy had arisen in the class among some of the girls. I had gone to a play with one of them, Alyona, and another, Natasha, a leader in the class, was frustrated with me. When Natasha and I were taking the tram together to class (she lived close to my neighborhood), she started making fun of me and humiliating me. Since I my Russian was still pretty basic at the time, I had a hard time understanding how Natasha was humiliating me and I was defenseless. The scene was so mean, that a middle-aged woman sitting next to us got involved, telling Natasha to cut it out; “How can you talk to him that way? He’s a foreigner!” she said. I was grateful to that woman, as I had no way to defend myself.
When we returned to school, I worked out in my head some sort of retort. I had to tell Natasha that my friends do not speak to me this way, so she could choose to be my friend or not. Not very subtle–it took great efforts to say even that clearly–but she got the message.
When I lived in Morocco, I had to deal with similar situations. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of girls he thought I might like. My friend kept teasing me, trying to put me on the spot, saying in Arabic right in front of these girls, “Do you like her? You can’t tell her you don’t like her! Do you like her friend better?” I tried to take the pressure off by saying, ‘jbatni “I like her fine.” Unfortunately, I transposed the first root letter to the end and said, jb’atni “I’ve had enough.” (I only realized this mistake a long time later.) They laughed so hard: “Really? You’ve had enough already?” I didn’t know why that was so funny, but tried to smile. I was hoping to dig myself out of the humiliating situation, but I managed to dig myself in deeper.
When I would have dinner with my host family, sometimes they would just make fun of me. Moroccans laugh at each other more than Americans do, so I had to learn to live with it. Simple banter, though, was over my head. I didn’t know what they were saying. I couldn’t be a good sport because I didn’t know what to say back. I had to learn to look like a good sport, even if I was angry, frustrated, exhausted, or confused.
Love in the International House of Pain
These are only two examples. At other occasions, Russians openly mocked my American accent. Moroccan friends mimicked the way I emphasized certain words. French girls talked at me fast and furious, purposely trying to overwhelm me. I had to choose between smiling blankly and walking away. When I was living in another country, though, I often had nowhere to walk away to. On occasion I tried to smack someone, but that never helped the situation; I just looked crazy.
By brute force, I learned how to overlook people’s unkind actions. I could get over blows to my ego without having to strike back. I’m quick to retort in English, but I had to learn a different approach. I had to take my lumps–deserved or not–with both hands tied behind my back. Even though my patience did not come from virtue, but only from trying to keep from being humiliated less, I at least had to act as if I was virtuous. I saw what patience looked like; I had to be what patience looked like. Even if I was patient out of necessity, practice made it a skill that I could later use when needed.
This humiliating language-love taught me patience. I can endure people’s unkindness towards me. These people also taught me how to show kindness to people even when they’re cruel. When people speak this way towards me, I can choose to smile and not retaliate. Maybe even more importantly, I know what it feels like to be an outsider who has to endure humiliation. Language love taught me a new kindness.
Have you been humiliated learning a language? What did you learn from it?
Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Disappearing cultures cause me to panic. The permanent loss of languages and ways of life make me imagine humanity impoverished. Over the weekend I watched the 2010 documentary, “Voices in the Clouds,” about a Taiwanese-American man, Tony Coolidge, who reconnects to his Atayal (one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) heritage after the death of his mother. Coolidge connected with activists who are working to preserve the heritage of these various cultures from this Island. When I didn’t hear the Atayal language spoken, though, I worried about the viability of this culture in the near future.
I had mixed reactions to this film. On the one hand, the children amazed me as they sang and danced with such passion and skill beyond their years. Their teacher’s success is know internationally. The film also highlighted those who continued traditional handicrafts, especially beautiful embroidery.
On the other hand, I missed hearing the language. Most of the movie was in English and Mandarin. I’m assuming the songs were in the native languages. I did not, however, hear anyone conversing in the Atayal language. When Coolidge met one of the Atayal elders and introduced himself, the woman immediately asked in Mandarin, “Do you speak Atayal?” The answer was “no” and so the conversation continued in Mandarin.
To me, the rest of the culture rang hollow with the language; it felt like looking at a museum. Rather than living and communicating in the most normal way, which happened to be Atayal, the life and crafts and music were about preservation. It was like “living history”–but history all the same. One very old woman talked about life in her mountain village, before she moved to the city: “We used to sing in the trees.” They simply sang; they didn’t sing to preserve a culture.
When a people speak a language with each other, they are still producing new culture. Something essential is preserved with the original language. For example, if a people relocates to another place and starts wearing jeans and t-shirts, the culture doesn’t feel lost. But if the children wear jeans and t-shirts and can no longer speak to their grandparents, the culture is dying. When the kids wear “modern” clothing, but make up songs in their native language, the culture is perfectly alive.
Recently I heard a leader of a local Lakota community say, “If you don’t speak Lakota, you are not Lakota.” I don’t think he was trying to exclude anyone, but to challenge his community. Unless the people are speaking in this language, they are acting like their ancestors, not following in their footsteps. Loss of traditional hunting and housing have caused distress in indigenous communities, but the level of worry has risen as they see the viability of the language disappear.
Work to preserve a culture
The hardest part of a culture to preserve is the language. A workshop–or 100–will not make you an expert in a language. It’s a lifelong process of hard, beautiful, social work as you connect with those who connect with the culture on its deepest level.
Those of you who are learning a language, you are continuing a culture. Those of you who want to preserve a culture, learn the language and teach it to others. You and your conversation-partners will benefit by extending the life–both in time and in numbers–of another culture.
How will you continue a culture? Which culture? Why?
Bilinguals represent the margin of US society, and monolingual English speakers, the mainstream. I belong to the mainstream, though I have a deep interest, curiosity, and admiration for the margins. I’ve found how my interest connects with something joyful with speakers of other languages. At the same time, I’ve seen people who are embarrassed of their language, and the descendants of this embarrassment. In both cases, the mainstream and marginal cultures suffer loss.
This week I saw an odd contradiction represented by a couple of different ways that bilingual folks view their native language. Briefly put, one was ashamed to speak about their language; the other didn’t want to stop talking about it. (I’ve changed some details to protect people’s identities.) I also saw an ethnic community here in Minneapolis, where the language pretty much disappeared, leaving only the names of a few foods. These experiences showed me that preservation of languages in the US require engagement from both the mainstream and marginal linguistic communities. When we engage individuals’ interest in their language, the language continues to the next generation, and all of society benefits.
Pride in one’s language
At work I learned a lot about the Hmong language. I had the opportunity to talk to a co-worker who is a native speaker of this language. I learned about the dialects. There are two, not entirely mutually-comprehensible dialects spoken in China and Laos because the Hmong people originated in China before they moved south. As far as I know, the Hmong immigrants in the US come almost exclusively from Laos. My friend told me that a group of Chinese Lao folks came to Minnesota, and their songs sounded Chinese to him.
He also taught me about the complex writing systems of Hmong. The most standard writing system uses the Latin alphabet. It uses letters to represent the tones. For example, the word for hello is written “Nyob zoo,” but is pronounced “Nyaw zhong.” The “b” at the end of the first word stands for a high tone. (This differs from Vietnamese that uses complex diacritics for tones.)
We could have talked for hours. I don’t know how often he gets to talk about his native language, but it was clearly a delight for both of us.
Shame in one’s language
In contrast, I recently met a friend of my daughters who speaks Tagalog (Philippines) at home–and she had no interest in talking about it. She speaks the language at home, though she speaks English mostly with her sisters. Her aunt, though, does not speak English, so they have to speak Tagalog to each other.
I asked how to say names of food and “hello,” and she claimed not to know anything, that she never speaks the language. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to learn some of this language, but it didn’t happen. We talked a little about Philippino food, but that was as far as it went.
Consequences of bilingual shame
This week I also went to an ethnic festival; the identity of the ethnicity I saw does not matter because it demonstrates the standard fate of ethnicities in the US. The festival included a handful of foods, referred to by their traditional names, and some costumes. The only time I heard the language spoken was by recent immigrants. Some older folks of this ethnicity in their 70s spoke only English.
These people’s parents or grandparents probably went through the same thing as my Tagalog acquaintance. When they were little, they were embarrassed about being different, so they shoved the language aside, so by the next generation, the language was gone from the community, completely replaced by English. Only the foods and clothing remained.
Standing out as a bilingual
I saw this week that people have a deep love of their language. Though they may not have many chances to talk about it, they love the opportunity. At the same time, this can be a source of embarrassment. After a while, the embarrassment causes the language to atrophy, so that it plays no role, or maybe a very reduced role, in the next generation.
Some think that the way to bring non-English speakers into the mainstream of US culture, we need to teach them English, but we could be more successful if we brought their native or home language to the dialogue. When we show interest in the language of the bilinguals around us, we allow them to integrate into society better because they can engage their whole self–including their language.
Moreover, the mainstream culture benefits, too. Every member learns more ways of thinking and problem-solving. Diversity of thought leads to more intelligence. Highlighting bilinguality even encourages our monolingual culture to learn another language so that everyone can benefit from another language–and the joy it brings.
What can the mainstream do to encourage bilinguals? How can bilinguals benefit the mainstream?
Humans attach value judgments to natural differences among people. For example, one person has a different skin color than another. This is a genetic difference with no inherent value. The human being will, nevertheless, attach a value to one skin color or another. This tendency is inimical to justice. Justice requires equality, not putting one person above another. If we desire to be just, we have to struggle against our inclination to consign humans to one category of value or another.
Language divides groups of people, because, as expected, humans attach various values to different languages. For example, one is more worthy of study than another, or one represents a better civilization than another. If I want to communicate with someone who speaks a language different from mine, at least one of us must learn another language. In the US, we assume that the other will learn English; why should we bother learning a thousand other languages when most of the world already sees the value of learning English? We have to ask another question, however, if we desire to be just: Why should everyone learn English and not the other way around? Is English more valuable? Languages are often connected to their economic and cultural value, and so English is very “valuable.” By the same token, Somali or Hmong or Kunama or Menominee are not valuable. Injustice is embedded in how humans interpret the interaction among languages.
You cannot treat others with justice if you don’t see the value in their language, that is, you value your language above theirs. This attitude is exemplified in the assumption, “Let us speak my language.” My language is worthy to be studied by you; your language is not worthy to be studied by me. If you hold this assumption, you may attempt to act justly, but you cannot succeed. Unless we are willing to speak the language of the other, we cannot treat him or her justly. We cannot be complacent with our language; we have to attempt to learn the other’s language. We might stumble in learning the language, we might fail at anything beyond, “Hello,” but we have to measure ourselves by our success at connecting with and loving the other.
I agree that accessibility to language education is a matter of justice; furthermore, I believe that rejecting language education is also a matter of justice. Denying language education to middle-class American children denies them to learn the value of all languages and, by extension, all people. Already, children are taught the value of all races, all ability levels, all economic levels. Unlike learning languages, they do not have to act on those lessons. If they are offered rich language offerings, they could work towards more justice and love towards their fellows. Taking actions of justice and connection would open their hearts even more.
I’m with Aaron that more people need the opportunity to learn languages. Learning a language does not only offer economic advancement, but also tools for love and respect. Justice requires eliminating the value of one language over another so that as humans we can love and connect with speakers of all languages.
How do you see the relationship between language and justice? Is it ok to view one language as more valuable than another? Should the practical–speaking the most accessible language–trump the ideal–learning the language of the less economically advantaged?
Thousands of tools and tricks and methods exist to learn languages on every platform, on- and off-line. All you have to do is use those tools a few hundred times, and you’ll be fluent. Why, then, doesn’t everyone know another language yet? The deciding factor is motivation. Most people lack something that will drive them back to those tools again and again, months and years after the initial shine has worn off.
Fluency will come when you have studied for a long time, which requires sustained motivation. Motivation requires focus, that is, the ability to decide to do this same activity when other activities also cry out for your attention. The deeper the motivation for learning the language, the longer you will stay focused. Motivation and focus also depend on endurance. Focusing a few times won’t suffice for learning a language, only a few thousand times. Different factors motivate successful language-learners. Love and curiosity trump economic reasons for learning a language because the focus runs deeper, though curiosity can sustain endurance longer.
When we desire in our heart to connect with someone, we can stay motivated to learn a language. The need to understand someone else deeply, and to be understood by them, can drive us for years to learn a language.
Love drives humans to do things in way that no other motivator can, and we see this in the area of languages. Like I said in my last post, the love can manifest itself as a desire to teach to another person’s heart an important message. One can also develop a deep love for another culture. A good friend of mine fell in love with Latin American culture, and so learned Spanish to a very deep degree. One can also fall in love with someone who does not speak your language. The strong desire to communicate with that one individual–and perhaps his or her friends and family–will motivate you for a long time.
Love drives us hard, but can end. If we break up with the object of our desire, or leave the area of our mission, our love may taper off. As love disappears, so may our language-love. I became fascinated with Welsh culture when I went to Wales at 15, so I studied some Welsh. After I was back in the US, my love of Welsh–and motivation to study Welsh–tapered off quickly. Love, nevertheless, motivates like no other force. If love detaches from a single object, such as a particular individual, to aim at a broader object, such as “the poor” or “humanity,” love can sustain itself longer.
Language reflects the human brain and culture. As I said elsewhere, language allows a human to move out of his or her mind and connect with another human. This uniquely human ability fascinates many. As sports display the beauty and strength and agility the human body is capable of, so language shows the flexibility and creativity of the human mind.
Curiosity can drive us to all the different ways that language manifests human wisdom and ingenuity. This curiosity can manifest itself in a love of abstract grammar processes. This drives us to study linguistics and Universal Grammar. Also, curiosity can drive us to read poetry in various languages, just to see what the human mind can think of next. One might collect proverbs or untranslatable words from different languages. Like my young language lover friend, we might just end up collecting books and websites of all different sorts of languages and learning as much as we can of and about them. Polyglots tend to fall in this category.
For humans being, curiosity rivals love as a motivator. Curiosity can be a love of an abstract concept. A biologist does not just really want to know about biology; she loves biology. In the same way as love, curiosity can die when the object of our inquiry is no longer there. Because curiosity lies mostly within us, however, curiosity can motivate us with less fickleness.
3. Economic necessity
Language love might start out with this, one of the weakest, motivators. Many people throughout the world began learning English because of this motivation. Parents probably offer this to their children to influence them to learn a language. For this reason, Mandarin immersion schools are popping up all over the world. In the history of the world, many learned languages so that they could speak to more potential customers in the local or distant markets.
Economic benefits from learning another language are clear. In third-world countries, knowing English might give you access to some of the best-paying jobs around. Large companies may encourage workers to learn languages so the company can gain market share in important areas. The government or military may need linguists in order to attain a particular objective.
This motivator can be short-lived because they depend on the economic situation. I met someone who learned Chinese in the Air Force. He spent eight hours a day in a plane on the edge of Chinese airspace listening to and translating conversations they picked up. He said it was a boring job. When he got out of the Air Force, he forgot his Chinese. During the period of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s relationship with East Germany encouraged many Russians to learn German. With new relationships with the US and the UK and the world English-speaking community, very few people learn German in the former USSR any more, and those who knew it have largely forgotten it.
Depth and endurance
Motivation requires depth and endurance. Scholars and psychologists have looked at the quality of “grit” recently and it relationship with successful learning, and these may be related. Love and curiosity offer greater depth, but curiosity probably offers more endurance. Economic motivation can offer endurance, but not necessarily depth. These areas can overlap and morph from one to another. Interest in a language from economic motivators can engender love for the other culture, or an overseas work assignment can lead to falling in love with someone from that culture. Curiosity in language can turn to economic motivation for continuing with that language. If you are stalled in learning your language, check out your depth and endurance for sticking to it.
What motivates you to learn your language? Where does your motivation come from? Did I leave any motivators out? Please write your motivators in the comments.
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.