Elements of Culture: Language

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” 
 George Orwell, 1984

Nine years of living in South America made Nate and I weird in many ways. One of the more obvious is the strange blend of Spanish and English we use with each other. To most people it’s incomprehensible, but to us it’s a necessity for true communication.

“How are you?”

“Eh, I’m okay. Tengo fiaca. I should work, but I just have no ganas.”

“Did you read that article?”

“Yeah, I don’t dispute his facts, but that guy’s opinion was really chocante.”

English is our native language, and even when we lived overseas, it was the language we used to primarily communicate with each other (more on that later). Still, when you learn a second language, you gain vocabulary for certain concepts that don’t exist in your first language.

Tengo fiaca, I’m temporarily unmotivated, feeling sleepy/lazy. But really none of those English words exactly express the feeling. I don’t feel lazy. I have fiaca. What I don’t have are ganas (desires/wants) to do anything.

Something that is chocante rubs me the wrong way, but it’s more like it…bashes into me. It hits me in an uncomfortable spot. It’s… It’s one of my favorite words. Learning that word in Spanish was like scratching an itch I was only vaguely aware existed. Finally, a way to express that exact feeling.

(It goes both ways, of course. There are plenty of concept that English expresses best. I discovered this the first time I tried to explain fundraising in Spanish. The activity exists there, of course, but all the words I tried to use felt slightly off. There’s nothing like inadequate communication when you’re talking about money.)

Obviously, language is a huge part of any culture, and it’s the single most obvious difference between us. But language is so much bigger and more complex than most people realize. Think about the dictionary definition: language is the system of communication used by a particular community or country. A system of communication. A whole set of rules and methods to understand each other. And we’re not using the same ones.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who treat translation as an issue of changing their English words into words in another language and presto! communication! But understanding another language goes way beyond knowing sets of words and grammatical rules. It requires understanding a culture’s view of the world.

Let’s look at the different elements of language and how they reflect (and possibly affect) our way of thinking.

Vocabulary and Syntax

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

 Benjamin Lee Whorf

In the 1930’s Benjamin Whorf claimed that the language we speak actually determines what we are able to see or hear or understand. Whorf’s theories of language are disputed in scientific circles today, and I’m not planning to dive into that debate. It’s fair to say, though, that even if our language doesn’t determine what we physically perceive, it does shape how we think about what we perceive.

Think about vocabulary. In Spanish, there are two words for what we call “blue” in English. Azul is darker blue, and celeste is light blue (sky blue). When we lived in Argentina, we found that people think of azul and celeste as being just as distinct as blue and green. I said their flag was azul and white. No, it isn’t, they said, it’s celeste. Right, I said, same difference. They looked at me like I was crazy.

Studies done with native Russian speakers (Russian has a similar distinction between light and dark blue) showed that they could more quickly identify the difference between light and dark blue than they could between shades of dark blue. What does that mean? That on some level, having a word that identifies a color affects the readiness with which you see the color. You see what you expect to see, and you mostly expect things you have a name for.

In other words, being able to name something makes it more immediately real to us.

Even more complex is the way our grammar and syntax affect our thinking. In the first few years in Argentina, I often struggled to find the correct Spanish grammar for phrases like “If I had done….something else would have happened.” It wasn’t until I had to wrack my brain to come up with complex grammatical structures that I realized how often I talked in hypotheticals like that. And it turns out that while there technically exists a way to say that in Spanish, native Spanish speakers didn’t even really know how to tell me what to say. Because they hardly ever talk about the past like that. Over time, instead of getting better at the grammar, I got better at thinking like an Argentine, which is to say I stopped saying things like that as much. What’s the point in discussing what would have happened if the past were different? What happened is what happened.

(For the record, I still talk that way in English, though. I literally think differently in Spanish than I do English.)

On the other hand, Spanish uses a subjunctive voice (indicating that an action isn’t exactly real) which we don’t use in English. Espero que vaya al cine lunes. I hope that I will go to the movies Monday. In English, the grammar for my wish to go to the movies is the same as the grammar I would use if I knew I were going to the movies. In Spanish, “I will go to the movies” uses a different form than “I hope I will go to the movies.” Is it possible that our lack of subjunctive in English affects the way we think about the power of our wishes and hopes? I would say yes. At very least it reflects a different attitude about it.

Conversational Rules

Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club – the community of speakers of that language.

‒Frank Smith

When Nate and I moved home from Argentina, we discovered that we had become rude. One of us would start to tell a story and the other would interrupt to continue it, only to be interrupted by the first speaker, and back and forth until we had told the whole story by talking over each other. Neither of us were offended by it at all. But it didn’t go over so well when we interrupted or spoke over our friends and family.

Of course, it wasn’t actually an issue of being rude. In Argentina, everyone talks this way. You don’t wait for someone to stop talking before you start. When you are ready to jump in to the conversation, you jump in. If they want to finish what they were saying, they will finish anyway. No one cares that two people are talking at once. Talking is the national pastime, after all, so the more the merrier. As a foreigner you soon learn, if you don’t “interrupt” you’ll never really get to participate in the conversation at all.

Each culture has its own conversational rules like this. Taking turns versus speaking over each other is only one possible difference. There are many others.

How do you enter a conversation? Is a greeting necessary? Do you make small talk first? Do you get straight to the point?

Do you speak about one subject at a time or many subjects at a time?

Do you speak directly about the topic at hand or dance around it? Do you avoid controversial topics or address them openly?

How do you leave a conversation?

How do different settings and levels of relationship affect these conversational rules?

While each individual may have their own style and way of answering these questions, it will be largely influenced by their culture. The rules of what is acceptable and what is rude are all there, largely unspoken, but still understood by all natives of the culture. Following them will barely be noticed, but breaking them causes disapproval every time.

Methods of Storytelling

Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.

 Flora Lewis

A couple of years ago, I read the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s a fantastic book, and you should read it. One of the most fascinating parts to me was the storytelling style. Achebe is African, and he’s telling an African story. He also tells it in an African way. It’s the story of one man’s life, but it wanders around, giving details about his surroundings or side stories about side characters, taking a very long time to eventually include all of the main events, and then at the end, just when you are wondering what the point of any of this was, one little line stabs you in the heart. That line wouldn’t have mattered without the whole wandering story. It’s a masterpiece.

Hemingway could have told the whole tale in three pages. It would have been the exact same story, but it wouldn’t have meant the same thing.

We call that difference linear storytelling versus circular storytelling. You know how they taught you in school that a story absolutely has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end? That’s cultural, friends. That’s linear storytelling. And that’s my culture, so I love it. It feels organized to me and efficient, and everything makes more sense and is less confusing.

But many cultures would disagree. In cultures where circular storytelling is the norm, the building of a story takes in more than just the events happening, and the organization doesn’t come from time but from relationship. When I mention one thing it makes me think of related things, so I tell about those, and those lead to other things, which eventually relate back to the first thing, and now you understand the first thing better because you’ve seen how it fits with the rest. It’s not an efficient way of imparting information, but why would efficiency be more important than understanding a thing in its full context?

Many, many cultures employ circular storytelling. Kids sitting in your classroom, people at your workplace, your neighbor down the street. They aren’t muddled and distracted, as those of us from linear storytelling cultures often think, but are communicating in the way that makes the most sense to them.

Nonverbal Communication

“When the eyes say one thing and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all experienced the power of nonverbal communication. How different is the meaning of the words, “Excuse me,” depending on the tone in which they are said and the gestures and facial expressions that go along with them? The same words can communicate apology, polite request, disapproval, defensiveness, or anger. No one ever tells you that a certain tone means a certain thing, but you know all the same. You absorbed that knowledge as a small child.

Nonverbal communication is as blatant as gestures and nonverbal noises, as instinctive as facial expressions and vocal tone, and as unrecognized as proximity and posture.

Of course, in different languages and cultures, the nonverbals are different, too. The same gesture that means “F- off” in one country means “I don’t know” in another. Eye contact is respectful in one culture and disrespectful in another. Standing close while talking is warm and friendly to one set of people and aggressive and invasive to another. Understanding what people intend to communicate by these things is critical to understanding anything they say.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

 Nelson Mandela

I spent my last summer in college studying Spanish in Argentina. It was a university program designed to immerse students in the language. In addition to taking classes, we lived with Argentine families. One of my best friends was in the program that same summer, and since there was a shortage of host families, we agreed to live together in the same household. Knowing we would share a room and a schedule, the program director cautioned us ahead of time not to take advantage of the opportunity to speak English. In fact, they had us sign a learning contract that we would only speak in Spanish for the two months we were there.

If you’ve had a roommate before, you know how important communication is, and you can probably see where this story is going.

Things got rough. Our Spanish was improving every day, but even as we learned the words to say what we needed or express opinions, we struggled to communicate emotions accurately and understand nuance. For a few weeks, we nobly held to our contract as the tension built, and then one night, it all came boiling up. I remember our Spanish getting more and more halting as it got more and more heated until the moment I finally said, “Forget it. We have to talk about this in English or we’re going to kill each other.”

The relief was nearly instant. After a couple of hours of conversation in our native language, our conflicts were resolved.

Language is hard-wired into our hearts and our minds. It runs through all the bonds between us. If we’re ever going to understand each other, we have to start with understanding that.

You may never learn to speak Arabic, but how much better would you understand your Arabic neighbors if you learned about their nonverbal cues and asked them what things they find hard to communicate in English? You may need a translator to tell you what your French-speaking Haitian co-worker is saying, but only you can listen for the worldview behind his words. And even if you never master Yoruba, you can forge a bond with with an African student just by attempting a few simple phrases in the language of his heart.

Language may be the river that separates us, but it can also become the bridge that brings us together.

We just have to be willing to get down in the mud to build it.


Want to read some more about this?

“How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”

Does the Language I Speak Influence the Way I Think?


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