What learning a new language can teach us about our own culture

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Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido, Japan

You shouldn’t push granny into the poison ivy.

I mean, it goes without saying, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there’s no epidemic of old ladies getting shoved into shrubs.

Yet, it may surprise you to know that I used to hear this phrase all the time. It’s common where I grew up. So why have you never heard it?

Well, because it’s a French idiom: Faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties.

Every language abounds with evocative idioms and expressions that seem nonsensical-if not downright insane-when translated. English is no exception. Next time a French person tries to hit on you (trust me, it’ll happen), tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree. Chances are, they’ll be confused. Maybe even offended. After all, you basically just called them a dog.

“Don’t push granny into the poison ivy” is roughly equivalent to “don’t exaggerate” or “don’t push your luck.” Roughly, because such a colorful expression can’t be perfectly translated. Beyond the semantics, language only feels natural when used in appropriate context. Where the English translations tend to be used by a figure of authority in a serious situation, the French version is more common among friends when joking around.

To me, such examples illustrate what makes language so powerful. Words are more than just tools we use to give meaning to our thoughts. They are the frame of reference we use to formulate those thoughts in the first place. Both the sword and the sheath.

We mustn’t take the sheath for granted.

Building bold, beautiful bridges

In the early 70s, psychologist Albert Mehrabian famously stated that 55% of communication is nonverbal, 38% is tone, and only 7% is what we say. Yet that 7% can do tremendous things: make and break relationships, start and stop wars, move hearts and minds.

Words matter. They are our primary way to convey complex thoughts. But words come from somewhere. They carry cultural baggage. And because they are so powerful, they influence the way we perceive and interact with the world.

An example I love comes from a 2003 study on gendered language. Researchers gathered subjects who were native in German or Spanish, but also fluent in English. Those subjects were given the name of an object and a set of adjectives. The goal was to match the adjectives with the object.

Both German and Spanish uses gendered nouns. For instance, a bridge is feminine in German, but masculine in Spanish. When participants were asked to match adjectives with the word “bridge,” the German-speakers selected traditionally feminine adjectives, like elegant, beautiful and slender. The Spanish-speakers went with more traditionally masculine adjectives, like towering, sturdy and strong.

While this is a fairly obvious example, the effects of language on thought are profound.

English verbs are conjugated based on when an action occurred and how long it lasted. In Japanese, those attributes are generally understood from context. That’s why Japanese native speakers learning English need to make a strenuous, conscious effort to think of each action in terms of time. Conversely, English native speakers learning Japanese need to learn how to insert subtle context clues to supplant the obvious grammatical tools they’re used to.

In addition, language differences go beyond missing words and verb tenses. Language is used in a deeply cultural way, so even when a direct translation exists, it can seem unnatural.

For example, Europeans generally think of the world as divided into distinct geographical regions. If you meet a Polish person in London, you might ask them what the food is like in their country, or in Eastern Europe more generally.

Japanese people have a much more insular culture, and tend see the world as divided into “domestic” and “overseas.” I work at a Japanese company, and often get questions like, “How do people conduct business overseas?” as if the rest of the world were a monolith for which I was the spokesperson.

To notice these differences, self-awareness is not enough. You need an outside perspective. The kind you can only get by learning a different language.

Learning about ourselves through others

I’m confident that I’ll never be able to notice the vast majority of biases that exist in my native language. They’ve been thoroughly engrained into the fabric of my reality.

However, I do think that living in several cultures and learning several languages can trigger something in the brain. It starts a questioning; a linguistic introspection that can broaden our cultural horizon.

Some of what new languages have to teach us is purely aesthetic. They introduce us to new forms of creativity, new allegories for life, the universe and everything. Did you know that in Japanese, something that is trivial or inconsequential is referred to as “sparrow’s tears” ( suzume no namida, 雀の涙)? In French, moving naturally from one thing to another is known as going “from thread to needle” ( de fil en aiguille).

The similarities of language can also shed light on the universality of the human condition. For example, the desire to throw something when you give up transcends culture. In English, you throw in the towel. In French, you throw the sponge ( jeter l’éponge). In Japanese, you throw a spoon ( saji wo nageru, 匙を投げる).

I particularly enjoy how much language reveals about our unconscious collective beliefs. In English, death it symbolized by the grim reaper, clad in black and gripping a scythe. In many Latin cultures, death is feminine, appearing in the form of a female angel. In East Asian cultures, death is often perceived as spirit or a monster.

The hard part is that these kinds of observations don’t occur to beginners. It takes a certain level of fluency to begin to perceive the influence of language on thought. If you’re not yet able to think exclusively in the language you’re learning, keep going. I see too many people who enjoy the rush of beginning to learn a language, but give up at the most important part: when that new language deviates completely from their native tongue.

To broaden your outlook on life, you need not only broaden, but also deepen your linguistic abilities.

Swimming upstream

Over tens of thousands of years, humankind left its cradle and populated the entire planet, diverging into a broad spectrum of ethnicities with unique cultures and histories. This spatial divergence, coupled with the need for communication specific to certain environments and a healthy dose of random, is what gave birth to the diversity of language. While globalization is slowly bringing our species back together, language remains one of the greatest obstacles to our unity.

Every language is like a river: starting from a common mountain range and trickling down through time, changing as it runs through new terrain. Studying the water from where we stand can tell us a lot about where that river came from and what it ran through. But comparing it to water from a different river can tell us much more. The more sources we study, the more we learn about their similarities and differences.

However, not all foreign languages bring the same benefits. If you speak English, learning German will be easier than Mandarin, but you will learn more about common Germanic roots than about humankind as a whole. The more different the languages you learn, the more you will understand about which elements of our nurture stem from culture, and which ones are common to all of humanity.

If you happen to have some free time, I recommend giving it a try. Find a language very different from your own and start learning. Pay attention to which aspects of the new language require you to think in an entirely different way. Then, ask yourself what that tells you about your own native tongue. Use the culture you’re exploring as a scalpel to deconstruct and question your own reality.

You’ll be amazed at what you find.

Just do it properly. It’s important to remember that quality is more important than quantity. Take the time to interiorize the languages you learn before moving on. We all want to be able to say we speak five, ten, twenty languages. But there comes a point where you’re storing vocabulary lists in your short-term memory instead of absorbing their meaning.

Learning a language takes years, and that’s fine. Take your time and do it for you. Rest assured, I have yet to meet someone who truly knows how to speak ten languages. Between you and me, people who make that claim are usually the ones pushing granny into the poison ivy.

Originally published at http://theforeignrational.com on May 7, 2020.

Written by

Mostly thinker, sometimes writer. Aspiring author. Polyglot. Background in Human Rights Law. Find me on twitter @alexstwrites or at www.theforeignrational.com

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