Monday, February 15, 2016

Language Is an Illusion

Why is that?

To begin with, there is a short tale for you to heed. Steve Martin is a British man. He was born in London 35 years ago and raised by his parents, who are also of London origin. He has spent most of his life, playing, studying, and working in his home country. Needless to say, having in contact with British culture and language for most of his time, his English is unquestionably excellent.

Now let's use a lot of third conditionals here: what if Steve had been born in Vietnam, where the official language is Vietnamese, not English? What if he had been brought up by parents who came from Quang Ngai, not London? What if he had had to nod his head a little bit, instead of shaking hands, which is unusual in Vietnam, when meeting someone for the first time? Would he be the one he is now?

Of course not. He would be very fluent in Vietnamese and his English might not be as good as his now.

(You might be wondering why there is a cultural question there. The quick answer is because language and culture are inextricable. Check out this awesome TEDx Talk by Tim Doner, a hyperpolyglot from the U.S.A.)

Now let's move on to YOU. What if you had been born, not in your homeland, but in another country? What if you had been brought up by parents whose mother tongue is not your native language? What if you had grown up getting exposed to a culture that is so different from the one you are used to? Would you be YOU?

No, you wouldn't. You would speak "that" language better than your real first language. Basically, you would be "a new you".

Getting back to Steve, if he were with his real parents in London, would they understand what Steve said in Vietnamese? Probably not. Would Steve understand what his parents said in English at a fast rate? Probably not either.

Now imagine "the new you" is now with your real family members at a monthly gathering at your maternal grandmother's house. Would they understand what "the new you" talked about? Probably not. In an exactly the same situation, they wouldn't get what the heck you were talking about and vice versa because of the different languages.

So what is this all about? It means language is nothing but a medium, or a system, as I like to call it. Language is only meaningful when a group of people (perhaps a tribe or a nation) agree on the "effects" it can give – I recall my high school friend told me that language is "an agreement". Or, in other words, it is an illusion. To see my tips for learning English, click here – be sure to check part 2 as well.

Actually this is what made me realize that to learn a language successfully is not that hard as long as you want to adapt to the "system". Or, to put it more dramatically, you must (want to) be "reborn' or "born again", like Christians do.

What is more, this also rebuts the notion that you need to be talented to be successful in languages. When we are talking about talent, we are referring to a small number of people, right? Now, how many French people can't speak French fluently? How many Germans can't write German in an effortless fashion? I believe only an incredibly tiny fraction of a nation are not able to learn and use their native language and it must comprise those with sight and hearing impairments. In short, language proficiency is not linked to talent.
To end this article, I would like to quote Tim Doner at the end of his TEDx Talk presentation "Breaking the language barrier" (find the link above):

"You can translate words easily, but you can't quite translate meaning."

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