"If you lived here, you'd know that stuff."

My dad has recently (in the last year or so) started voicing his fascination with language difference by remarking on quickly-spoken English phrases that would likely befuddle a foreigner. Things like "shoes on," as a routine command from a parent to a child, for example, might sound like "shu-zan" or "shu-san" to a native speaker of an Asian language like Japanese, in which "san" and "zan" are fairly common endings designating a person or mountain (sound weird? It's true). Such language differences arise even between groups of native English speakers that have their own jargon, as in the case of my mom's sea-faring crew, back in the day — a fellow crew-member of hers, I think, would say, "let's go eat" as "'sgweet," which an outsider would probably think of as an exclamation rather than an invitation.

I am ashamed to say I have not actually seen this movie (yet)
but I always think of it in these scenarios...

Sometimes these interactions result in humorous anecdotes to later tell the folks Back Home. Other times (probably more often than not), it frustrates the non-Native speaker; and the longer the misunderstanding goes on, the harder it becomes to ask for clarification (a phenomenon I'm sure we've all experienced in English/our native tongue, as George Costanza did in that one episode of Seinfeld.) Even without a particular problem with a particular word or phrase, it's tough to express yourself in a foreign language, as illustrated in Chapter 7 of Adolescent Literacy in the Common Core:
Margaret taught a unit about language reflecting and creating character. Included in the unit was an essay about losing one’s first language through immigration. Margaret asked students to pair off: students who were immigrants with those who were not. [...] the immigrants noticed parts of the text that the other students ignored. For example, one immigrant focused on the description of initially losing humor when you lose your first language. Other students said, “I never thought of that. That would be terrible—not to be able to laugh with friends.”
I had the kind of experience that immigrant student described when I studied abroad in Japan, as my classmates well know. Not only could I not tell or understand a joke in Japanese, but expressing any kind of personality, with words, was extremely difficult, and at times depressing. If you're lucky, though, you find a group of people — like I did — or in the immigrant student's case, some classmates, who are invested in you and your desire to learn and understand their language, it can be a positive experience.

Still, it's a struggle. To quote from Chapter 12 of A new literacies reader, in which Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin is referenced,
to become literate in a certain social language entails more than solely learning the discrete, linguistic aspects or reading, writing, and speaking. [...] Bakhtin conceives of language learning as coming to know, either consciously or implicitly, how to participate successfully in certain social situations...
Language, though it may not seem like it at times, is inherently tied to culture, and the way things are expressed in words often (if not always) reflect a worldview that differs from that of culture in the same way the languages are different.

For example: The Japanese equivalents of "how's it going" or "how are you" and "be careful" are "genkides(u)ka" and "ki(w)otsukete." The first phrase, in Japanese, refers to health, specifically health of the spirit — is it there? The second phrase might "literally" translate to "attach your spirit." Now, most Japanese people you may meet (in Japan or otherwise) probably don't think of the mystical-sounding origins of these phrases when using them, but it's significant to note the difference between these words and the American ones. "How's it going," to me, is more an inquiry into the life of the person rather than the person herself; what sorts of events are happening to you or because of you. "How are you" might anticipate more of a reflection on a person's state, but the answers are "good," "great," "fine," "OK," and (unusually) "not great." None of these answers connote health quite the way genki does; we often follow up those statements with a description of something we are doing or participating in, something we received or did not receive. As for "be careful," isn't that really just a warning that, should it go unheeded and result in consequences, gives the adviser place to say "I told you so?" Whereas kiotsukete seems like a gentler suggestion to look inward and judge for yourself what you must do.

Maybe I'm reading too much (or not enough) into things, but to me, these differences in language are in keeping with the differences between Japanese and American culture; where one looks in, another looks out.

One last thing I wanted to touch on — a little irritant of mine — is the danger of othering (philosophically) by "exoticizing," to borrow a word from a classmate, an outside language and culture.

In Issues in Alaska Native Education, we read an online book about the Ipani Eskimos, written in the mid 1970s. The book is structured like the calendar year, and describes the cyclical Ipani way of life by month. January, in what I believe is Inupiaq, is called "Si khin ah rook rook," which the author says means, "The sun is beginning to rise higher and higher after it has been really low in the last new moon before this one."

People who are inexperienced with foreign languages tend to be awed by how much is conveyed in "a single word" of languages like those of Native Alaskans, seeing the speakers as especially "wise" or something because of this apparent phenomenon. But you have to remember, when an Inupiat says "Si khin ah rook rook," they're not thinking, in their head, "The sun is beginning to rise higher and higher after it has been really low in the last new moon before this one," explicitly; they may look toward the sun and note, without thinking specific words, that is a particular time of year which implies a certain activity. It would be like a "new-world" American, shall we say, saying, "Today is the day when a planet's rotational axis ... is most inclined toward the star that it orbits" (Wikipedia definition) instead of "Today is the summer solstice." When we say that latter phrase, we don't think about what's actually happening in space; we think, vaguely, about days getting shorter again and the decline of summer, maybe of parties we plan to go to. But all too often, an American sees a "word" like Tuntussurqatarniksaitengqiggteuq — Yupik for "He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer," according to Manhattan Institute Professor John McWhorter — and their mouth turns into a wide 'O.' Even English words like antidisestablishmentarianism elicit that reaction from uneducated or instinctual people who fail to see that this "one word" is actually five or six parts — a combination of stems, most of which convey their own independent meaning.

This is a long way of saying that, if we're not careful, as outsiders to a particular culture, we may end up placing that culture in a zoo-like cage that is, obviously, more damaging than appreciative. We need to remember that, as we recognize differences, we must also recognize similarities, and treat the other as a person "like us" — not an anthropologic artifact.


Popular Posts