January 28, 2014

Language and the human

Inclusion, not exclusion, is at the root of shared language

Growing up as a missionary’s kid in Japan, my dad learned two languages without the exhaustive, decades-long process that most of us associate with acquiring fluency. He comprehends and easily navigates both cultures, and even though he’s lived in the U.S. for the last 20 years, he remains fluent in both languages. Though his siblings have all since moved to the U.S., family holidays are full of bilingual puns, references, and sundry vocabulary.

From a psychological standpoint, language clearly influences the way we see our world—for instance, the use of feminine and masculine words for “bridge” in different languages yielded different descriptions of the structure in a 2003 Stanford study. My father’s family therefore has access to an entirely different framework of understanding, one interpreted by two languages instead of just one. When we travel to Japan, my father’s manner shifts—his gestures become subtler, his voice quieter, and his bearing more compact. While this is in part a recognition of the culture itself, it is also a reflection of the language he is using.

While spending time with the bilingual side of my family when I was younger was both fascinating and fun, I suffered from a muted sense of jealous exclusion. The adventures my aunts and uncles recalled about growing up as a family of seven in Japan seemed to me far more interesting than anything I had experienced, or ever would. The vocabulary I acquired through casual use gave me a certain pride, but each phrase tossed back and forth reminded me that it was a world of which I could never quite be a part. I remember looking toward the long years it would take me to learn Japanese with a sulkiness exacerbated by the recognition that I would probably never be as fluent as a native speaker. I intended—and still intend—to take the language as far as I can, but the language my father speaks is a world apart from my own.

Language does play a role in the way we conceptualize our society and communicate within it by setting up certain partitions. Languages inevitably exclude non-speakers from both conversation and true understanding of culture. In the media, they’re frequently cited as forces that separate a society into its composite and irrevocable parts—controversy over the role of the English language in citizenship status is rooted in a conception of language as integral to cultural belonging. Even in dialogues praising multiculturalism, there is a tendency to focus on the purity of cultural separation and the autonomous richness each culture provides; the outsider is encouraged to appreciate but never truly immerse herself in it.

But language, by its very nature, is not a blockade, but is rather as fluid and adaptable as the process of learning it. For five summers, I attended a Japanese language camp in rural Minnesota—a place where students cobbled Japanese and English together with reckless abandon, where language wasn’t necessarily a sacred communal entity, but rather a multifaceted medium for jokes, learning, and connection. When I returned home, I could understand more of what my dad’s family was throwing back and forth, but I had also gained my own way of understanding language. The community I had formed was based on a linguistic hodgepodge, and lost nothing from this disorganization. As I stepped back from the perceived sanctity of impeccable fluency and into the messy communication of learning, I gained my own way of understanding, separate from any specific linguistic lens.

I still believe that the world my dad and his family see is illuminated differently from my own. Their language proficiency opens their experiences and highlights different elements in their eyes. But, as I now realize, this is a testament to the efficacy of communication rather than to Japanese or English as their own spheres of thought. No language has one defined way of seeing the world, but rather many fluid perceptions grounded in communication. We can expand our understanding through greater acquired knowledge, but ultimately language is a subsidiary function of the connections between people.

Ellen Wiese is a first-year in the College.