Speakez-vous Englais?

I am told the Chinese have a proverb that says something like “You don’t notice your shoes until they pinch”. The same can be said of language. We speak, write, listen and read and take these things for granted. Our language “pinches” only on rare occasions such as when we can’t think of the right word for some subtle concept or we are trying to explain something to someone with only a cursory knowledge of our language.

Babies are not born able to speak. Whether or not the theories are true that say our brains are wired for language, the fact remains that we dedicate a huge part of our early life to learning to use and understand our language. We are hardly aware of this: our language grows with us just as our bodies and brains do and we can hardly remember or imagine a time when we could not converse with ease.

One way of simulating this primitive linguistic phase is to learn a foreign language. This can be fun, especially if we have a good teacher, but it can also be frustrating because, unlike the baby, our reasoning ability and our store of concepts outstrip our ability to express them.

We talk about “knowing” a language but it is not like knowing facts. Maybe you do “know” the meaning of the French verb connaître but do you “know how” to use it? “Knowing how” takes time to learn. In fact, we go on learning our own language throughout our lives. Or rather, we do if we have a mind to. Some people stop learning at some stage but others go on enriching their vocabulary, acquiring or inventing new expressions and expanding their linguistic horizons.

I find language endlessly fascinating. I speak French as well as English and find myself continually comparing and contrasting them with one another. Differences in culture lead to differences in language so that there is rarely a word in one language that has the exact same meaning (neither more nor less) as some word in the other language. You can compose a passage in perfectly correct French, for example, and it just doesn’t sound French. To speak or write a language well, you need long and close acquaintance with native speakers and their lives so that you know how they express themselves in every circumstance.

And what about this curious experience of finding that one language possesses terms for which there is no equivalent in the other? Like the Portuguese saudade or the mysterious en in French expressions like Je m’en vais?

When we speak our own language, we only vaguely recognize that there is a difference between the word and the object that it stands for. For example, someone says “Would you like a cup of tea?” and you immediately think “Mmm tea!” and reply “Oh yes, please!” But imagine if someone instead offers you “une tasse de thé”: unless you are bilingual you may have to take stock of the words tasse and thé, match them up with their English equivalents, cup and tea, before understanding what is being asked. But if you assiduously practise your French, you one day realize that these words tasse and thé are now sending their meaning directly to your mind without you having to match them up with English words. That can be a very exciting moment for the language student.

Studying language can be very rewarding. It not only provides us with a skill but teaches us about culture and psychology, our own as well as other peoples’. The British are traditionally poor linguists, perhaps because the status of our language as a de facto “world language” makes us lazy and because we are an arrogant race: we always like to be on top and we therefore prefer to patronize foreigners speaking poor English than to attempt to speak their language and be patronized in our turn.1

In London I daily hear many language spoken and unless we learn one another’s languages we are like lunatics yelling incomprehensibly from the isolation of our asylum cells. Mutual incomprehension is one of the greatest dangers we face in our search for peace and a truly united community.


1This paragraph has been quoted in Daniel Sciboz, Self-directed workgroups an inquiry into the effects of human difference perception, demographical group composition, and information diversity on short task performance, Berlin, Humboldt-Univ., Diss., 2010

Copyright © 2007 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to Speakez-vous Englais?

  1. Cailleach says:

    You’ve reminded me that “Duende,” that expression Lorca coined for the spirit in poetry is very difficult to capture in English.

    You’re talking about that babel effect, both in culture and language. One is both a representation and and an expression of the other, they go hand in hand, sometimes I think. Nice post!

    I’ve added you into my links. 🙂

  2. ggwfung says:

    An interesting contrast having different languages giving us different conceptual tools, and having a single language (Latin, English) which enables communications across borders.

    The old homogeny/diversity paradox.


  3. rlao says:

    It has been said that different languages develop different parts of tongues and may also develop different part of brain. I think in English when I want to converse in it and think in Chinese when I do that as well unless there are concepts/things that are known to me only in one language. Then I struggle to get the meanings across in another language. For many years, I struggled with the idea of “can someone think or formulate ideas without a language?” Can one?

  4. SilverTiger says:

    Multi-lingualism is certainly interesting from a psychological and sociological point of view. People do seem to have favourite languages for discussing specific topics. For example, in Alsace, where both French and Alsacian (a German dialect) are spoken, I notice that people use Alsacian while talking about domestic and everyday matters and switch to French to talk about politics, legal matters, etc.

    With regard to which language you think in, my experience is as follows. In normal conversation, you don’t have time to think linguistically before you speak. You brain is somehow “switched” to a particular language and your thoughts come out in that language. It’s only when you are reflecting on something without immediately speaking that you are aware of ordering your thoughts in a language. This is why you may spontaneously speak the “wrong” language. I have done this in mid sentence, to my embarrassment.

    I do believe one can think non- or pre-linguistically because I have experienced “non-verbal thinking” myself. There comes a sudden flash of realization followed by a reflective moment while you work out how to put into words what has just occurred to you.

    Email SilverTiger

  5. baralbion says:

    I’m not at all sure that learning a foreign language simulates the primitive linguistic phase of learning your mother tongue. I rather think they are quite different mental processes.

  6. SilverTiger says:

    Perhaps “simulate” was the wrong word, though “simulate” does imply an imitation, not an exact replica.

    We cannot replicate the language learning phase because this occurs at the same time as the brain is developing. We learn our own language(s) in a “language vacuum” whereas we later learn new languages in the context of our already acquired native language(s) and with brains that have already received considerable development.

    Nonetheless, I think not being able to say what we want to say can remind us of an earlier stage in our linguistic development. I certainly remember trying to explain something to my mother and failing. It was not that dissimilar to early steps in acquiring a new language at school or university.

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