Exclusively English


photo by Amani Canada

The German Fulbright scholars who have been with us over the last few weeks had many questions about the American culture. I learned to re-examine things that I had thought of as normal, and to appreciate key differences that are our American experience. But, one thing they commented on has stuck with me: It seems like we only speak English!

Even though we take mandatory language classes for school, many of us can’t really speak in any other language very fluidly.

In Europe it is rare to come across someone who doesn’t speak at least two “” if not more “” languages. English is often mandatory, so being bilingual is the norm.

Did you know that people who are bilingual have more gray matter and better quality white matter built up in their brain? Scientists don’t exactly have a definitive conclusion about what this means, but it sounds like a good thing.

Why is it that, even with years of education, American students still find it so difficult to learn another language? Are we just lazy? Or is it really difficult to practice?

It’s some combination of both, I think. In a way, we have over inflated the difficulty and underestimated the value of learning new languages. But learning a language is not that hard. And you really only need about 300 words of vocabulary to be at a basic level of conversational fluency in a language.

Linguists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, teachers and philosophers have all tried to pinpoint the function of language in concept formation, when it begins to occur in the human development and how it can be used to accelerate learning. When we are just 20 months old, we are able to begin understanding two different languages in a bilingual household, according to an August study in Science Daily. Babies have been learning sign language since the discovery of how communication was blocked by the difficulty of producing sound, but symbolism for concepts could still be formed through hand gestures. So what really begins the process of the creation of concepts and understanding of our world; is the primacy thought or language? If it is language, then how does it affect our ability to understand our surroundings?

Eskimos have over a hundred different words for snow, but does that mean that the rest of us can’t really form a concept around the various forms of snow they have?

I believe that concepts and language are connected, and until we can describe something really well with words, we don’t realize it fully in our reality. So, I don’t have 100 words for snow, and for me there are really only a few variations of snow. In the end, I can’t conceptualize the many other nuances associated with 100 words defining snow.

Language skills actually put you into a new frame of reference for how you think about the world. Assigning a label to concepts and categorizing knowledge is a part of how language shapes our understanding.

So what does it mean if we cannot understand someone’s frame of reference for conceptualizing the world when they speak a different language? It means that we must look at things in an even more open-minded way; there are times when we cannot even understand the realities around us the way another person does.

We may share in our existence in reality, but our relationship to reality varies.

Learning a new language is about the most intimate way to connect with another human because while memorizing vocabulary, one also begins to conceptualize reality in a totally new way.