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