The Power of Language

One important thing that I noticed almost immediately from when I arrived in Brussels, was the power of language. I suppose it was something that I never quite thought about and took for granted because I am often able to get by with my little knowledge of Hindi when I travel to India, and other than that, I haven’t really been abroad. However, with my four years of high school + one semester worth of French, while I can get by and understand the basics of the language when people speak to me here in Belgium, there are a few things that I have begun to realize about language itself.

I think for many of us, it can be very easy to forget that not everyone in the world has learned the same language as we have. Especially for those of us who were brought up learning only English, because it is so prevalent around the world (especially with businesses), it can become easy to get used to relying on people, for whom English is not their first language, to pick up the slack and work harder to learn it. However, what I’m starting to realize is just how big of a barrier language can be, even if everyone at the table technically knows English.

On a personal level, when I first met my host family about a week ago, I immediately had to accept that I would not be able to have deep conversations about personal issues or struggles with them, at least not in the way I have had those conversations with native English speakers at Georgia Tech. Even though we’ve been able to discuss some differences in our cultures (with the help of Google Translate) at the dinner table, there is always a basic barrier that we are unable to cross because we have both been brought up learning different languages. I suppose there is simply a certain amount of comfort and knowledge of vocabulary that speaking in English provides me with that I would never be able to replicate in French, the same way that they would never quite be able to replicate it in English. Beyond just knowing words, I feel like language gives us the ability to think, construct, and convey complex ideas to others. And that’s what bothered me the most. Because for the first time in over a semester, I realized that if my host family didn’t understand something complicated I was trying to say, while explaining it to them again in different words might help, at some fundamental level – they just might be unable to comprehend my idea in English.

At a psychological level, language is extremely powerful as well. It has been found that having gendered articles before a noun can even shape the way that we view that object. For example, research has found that Germans, for whom the sun has a feminine article (die Sonne), will describe the sun with more feminine qualities than the Spanish, for whom the sun has a masculine article (el sol). This makes sense, because even though we are not making a conscious effort to view certain things in specific ways (ie. masculine or feminine), our language provides us with the context with which to view the world. This is extremely influential for shaping our entire world view, especially when we are children and are creating our concept of how the world works. Our language will naturally cause us to keep track of certain things, like masculine or feminine nouns if we’re speaking in French, time and tense if we’re speaking in English, or which side of the family our uncle is on if we’re speaking in Hindi – and this in turn becomes a part of the way in which we group and view those objects or concepts. For example, with the issue of illegal immigrants, growing up calling them “illegal aliens” necessarily causes the individual to view these immigrants as almost some species from another planet versus someone who grew up calling them “undocumented workers” who may see them in a nicer light and as having a bigger contribution to society.

Ultimately, I can only imagine how difficult that must make political negotiations on the macro-level. Imagine having extremely intelligent experts from all over the world come together to discuss how to address terrorism or trade – while everyone may know and understand English at an extremely competent-level, there is an inherent difference in the way a native speaker may understand certain words or terminologies versus someone who learned it as a second-language. And with the amount of miscommunication that goes on within the United States alone, without the language barrier, I can only imagine how much miscommunication would increase when speaking with people who are coming from an entirely different linguistic background – one with different idioms, phrases, conations, etc.. To me, it speaks to the importance of trying to understand other cultures and allowing for more leeway when speaking with non-native (and even native) English speakers, because we all view words differently and say things that might mean completely different things to each other. As we continue to learn about the European Union on this trip, it will be interesting to see how linguistic barriers create inherent issues and how those obstacles are dealt with within the institution and in the international sphere.

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