Valuing our Mother Tongue

November 7, 2019
November 7, 2019 Peter Welch

This past weekend, Secondary students organized a Mother Tongue conference at AISB – an excellent initiative that was really valued by all the students, parents and teachers involved. AISB is making great effort to value world language and provide more opportunities for students to study their mother tongue. 

Charlemagne, the medieval French king, once said that “to have a second language is to have a second soul”. Our language and ways of communicating shape our experience of the world profoundly. There are over seven thousand world languages, and each offers a unique way of experiencing human communication.  

 Ask a fluently bilingual person what happens when they switch languages and they might say that they think differently, move differently and even adopt a changed persona. If you speak many languages, you may be able to switch cultural codes when you travel. However, so crucial is language to our sense of identity that you will only feel truly yourself when speaking your mother tongue.

 Let’s consider some examples of how a language can influence a culture. The English language has an expansive and rich lexicon full of possibilities for synonyms, wordplay and double-meaning. It, therefore, offers lots of opportunities for a form of layered humour, such as satire, irony or sarcasm. English also offers many varieties of understatement and prevarication, although I may possibly need a smidgen, a crumb, a mere morsel of further rumination to thoroughly investigate, nay muckrake, that interim conclusion.

 In the elegant language of French, one is equipped to be an excellent debater – trés quick and precise. This is the old vernacular of European diplomacy, after all. In German, we can be über-clear and serious in what is a logical, stout language. German philosophers and political theorists have been extraordinarily influential in the development of European thought. Try speaking Italian and keeping your hands still with its elongated and expressive vowel sounds. Italian is a passionate language that is intertwined with a passionate culture. In Japanese, there are many rules for formal and polite speech to match the demands of a social situation. The language offers a detailed grammar for saying sorry, or no thank you so very sweetly. When a Japanese person must communicate in English they are deprived of these nuances of social language and are forced to convey politeness with exaggerated gestures instead.

 Some words, phrases or idioms simply do not translate. For example, the Swedish word smultronställe literally means a place of wild strawberries, but it has a deeper emotional undertow evoking a special calm place that touches the heart. You probably need to be Swedish and have stood in such a mesmerizing place to really get it. A single word can be layered with cultural substrata. Words such as zeitgeist, panache or chutzpah are co-opted into other languages because they capture a thing so perfectly that any translation would miss the je ne sais quoi.

 In the middle of the last century, the American linguists and anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf developed ground-breaking ideas about how language determines culture and thought. Their work was conflated and somewhat reinterpreted into a ‘Sapir–Whorf hypothesis’, which states that the structure and vocabulary of a given language affect the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world. In the strongest version of this theory, it is argued that the language we have defines the limits of our conscious thought. Simply put, if you don’t have a word for a thing then you are not able to conceive of it. For example, if a language does not have a word for the feeling of being bored, then its native speakers could never actually be bored in the proper sense of that concept. They might feel unoccupied, under-utilized or at a loose end, but never properly bored.

 The implications of this hypothesis are certainly far-reaching. However, for a long time afterward, the ideas of Sapir and Whorf were dismissed. Until close to the end of the last century most theorists supported the idea that human thought processes were universal. More recently, although rather dead and not available for parties, Mr. Sapir and Mr. Whorf have come back into style. The academic field of how language affects how we think is still evolving. There is no simple consensus, yet most experts now agree that the influence is important.

 It is intriguing, for example, that research shows that Russian speakers can see more shades of blue as they have a more effective vocabulary to describe them. The Zambals from the Philippines have no word for left or right. They use linguistic versions of north, south, east and west instead and consequently have superior fine-tuning for spatial orientation. The Piraha, living in the Amazon rainforest, have no words for numbers and use terms like ‘a few’ and ‘many’ instead. So, they are not able to keep track of exact quantities. The lesson is if you need a new pair of jeans, take a Russian for fashion advice and a Zambal to park your car and find the store, but on no account give your money to a Piraha for safekeeping.

 We can multiply examples of how a certain language might amplify our understanding of an experience. Japanese offers ten different ways to describe rain falling. Famously, the Inuit people can describe forty-two different varieties of snow. The Lapps have eight seasons of weather, rather than my English four, or the two seasons that my wife’s students observed in the Sahel in Ghana. If you want to buy a horse, take a Mongolian with you to really discern and describe the qualities of the beast that you’re buying. Painting your front door? A grasp of Zulu will enrich your conversation at the hardware store with thirty-nine words for the colour green to choose from. Familiarity with other languages certainly offers the possibility to see the world from a lovely new vantage point.