Today seems to be an apt day to be writing about learning a new language since, this morning, I was moved to a higher level for my French language class. To be completely honest, this doesn’t mean that I will stop looking like a deer caught in headlights if someone starts talking to me in French on the street, it just means that now I know enough grammar to string together a conversation with someone patient enough to sit down for a chat.
This week in The Global Tiller, we explore how we learn new languages and what impact it has on our brains as well as our perceptions. Is there a key to a more tolerant world buried deep inside the complicated rules of each of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world? Let’s find out.
Learning a new language is hard. Not only do you have to learn a whole bunch of new characters, vocabulary, word genders and grammar rules but you also have to learn to laugh at yourself (along with a classroom full of people) when you confidently tell them you ate your neighbour last weekend.
The way children learn how to speak and associate sounds with different objects and actions is a good insight into how humans learn. An MIT professor, Deb Roy, hardwired several cameras and microphones inside his house and recorded over 90,000 hours of home video, mapping the way his first-born son learned how to speak. He discovered that babies are not only mimicking adults but the environment in which they come across words also make a difference. He mapped how the word 'water' was connected with the kitchen and the bathroom, and the word 'bye' was connected with the foyer.
The environment not only helps us learn a new language but it also gives us a unique insight into the context in which that language exists. You see that often when there are several words to describe something that exists only as a single word in another language. Camembert, roquefort, brie, gruyère, etc to describe the different kinds of cheese in French, when in Urdu you can get by with just one word: paneer. Or calling your aunt khala or phuppo depending on if she’s the sister of your mother or your father, when in English or French just 'aunt' or 'tante' is sufficient.
In fact, when Philippe started his Urdu lessons he noticed how the context, or the community, preceded in a sentence but, in languages stemming from Latin, the focus tends to be on the individual. I’m not sure if the language shaped these communities. Most likely, it was the other way round, but the mere act of stringing together a sentence gives you a unique insight into how one culture differs from the other. Learning a second language can make you more culturally competent and also equip you to deal with ambiguity - a skill we’ll definitely need to hone in the post-pandemic and globally warmed world.
One organisation is illustrating how language learning can help build bridges. NaTakallam.com is not only offering language classes in Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish, Persian, etc but it is connecting learners with refugees who are fluent in these languages. Learners not only learn how to communicate in these languages but also look inside the daily life of a refugee, an experience that is sure to make those in richer countries less hostile to those fleeing war zones and other kinds of brutalities.
We’ve known for some time that learning a new language can prevent degenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimers, but let’s try to take on this challenge as a way to make our world a little more tolerant. After all, what good will our super cognitive abilities be if we can’t learn to coexist?
If you are planning to learn a new language, do let us know in the comments below.
Until next week, take care!
Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller
Learning a new language can be a humorous experience. I laughed out loud when I read about language mishaps in David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, or when I watched the Bollywood film English Vinglish. You may enjoy them too!
…and now what?
Communication is an act of sharing, from the very root of the Latin word 'communicare', which means putting things together, sharing them.
It was an immediate result of humans deciding to live and create together because, in order for people to be efficient, to form groups and to organise, they needed to share perspective, thoughts and ideas. And so, communication was born. Thanks to language, we have built civilisations. It even helped us leave our planet when we shared ideas, not just through words but also through the language of mathematics.
When you look at the world today, we have many more abilities and mediums to communicate yet it seems like we’re sharing less. Communication and language, made initially for us to thrive together, has become a way to divide.
Social media is the epitome of this paradox - trying to enhance our ability to communicate yet creating a space where we stop sharing and start fighting. Why is that so? When you ask the founders of social media, they would tell you that their initial goal was good: they wanted to get people together. So what went wrong along the way?
One thing that could be at the core of this is the fact that we tend to take language and communications for granted. We forgot that, despite being a natural ability, is not a natural skill. It needs to be learned, to be practiced and moulded with caution especially when we develop more tools that impact the way we communicate and connect with one another.
In my recent conversation with Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, we discussed the need to teach social media competency, more than social media literacy. We need to teach children and adults, not just how to use, but to understand how these communication tools work so we can take control of them, and not be defined by them.
However, the problem lies deeper than that. Language is a powerful tool. And, like any other tool, it doesn’t hold any form of morality by itself. It’s the user that makes it good or bad, positive or negative. If I hold a hammer and I feel threatened, I will make the decision to use the hammer as a weapon.
Eventually, this boils down to our values. In a world impacted by the unknown, dramatic changes and fears fuelled through power games, are we valuing 'the other'? Words like this have been made threatening and weaponised to symbolise values that are divisive per se: patriotism, nationalism, self-interest, individual wellbeing. Hence, the more I value my space, my perspective, my point of view, the more language will become a tool of division.
But if we start re-using language and communications as a way to interact, to connect and to build together - like this website valuing the richness that refugees bring to their new places - we can start to make them as powerful tools to change our system.
It is not just about changing the way we communicate, but also about which values drive our usage of words. Perhaps, it is time to recode?
Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury