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Dec 16


If you can't learn a language, learn from the language.

“A different language is a different vision of life” – Federico Fellini

A language holds in it the history, values and perspectives of a culture. In spite of its intangible nature, a language is so strong in it’s resources, it can bring the mindset of a country or a city to another through mere words. Today, we are going to talk about language – a little bit about how it shapes us and a little bit about the local languages around the world that will intrigue our minds.

The language we speak influences the way we think and feel. A culture heavily influences it’s language and similarly, once learnt and passed down, the language keeps affecting the way people think in spite of major changes in the culture of the society. For example south asian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Nepali, or Bengali have different words for maternal or paternal aunts, the people in their immediate families or their in-laws, as they are the holders of the collectivist cultures and the role of all family members is unique. On the other hand, English or other western languages such as Spanish or French, have only 8 unique words for different types of relations, as a result of their individualistic cultures. Today, even when we see people living in nuclear families in Eastern countries, they still oblige to their roles and responsibilities towards their family members, as people from a collectivist culture would do.

Another famous example that cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky uses in her Ted-Talk “How Languages Shapes The Way We Think” is how ‘a bridge’ is a female noun in German but a male noun in Spanish. This influences the way German and Spanish speakers describe a bridge. While German speakers are more likely to use stereotypically ‘feminine’ adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘elegant’ for describing the bridge, Spanish speakers are more likely to use stereotypically ‘masculine’ adjectives such as ‘strong’ and ‘long’ to the same bridge.

Now that we have a sense of the little nuances of language that, let us also look at some fascinating languages and language habits around the world.

  • Let’s take ourselves to a little Turkish village, where the people have their own secret language – the whistle language or the bird language. This is a village full of people who don’t need words to communicate but have their own systematic and sophisticated form of whistling to talk to each other. The ‘geographical’ significance of this language is that it allows the villagers to communicate with each other through mountain terrains and easily get themselves heard from far away. These are 10,000 people who whistle all day. Take yourself back to a moment where you found yourself whistling and humming. It is one of those moments when we act like our natural child self and just enjoy ourselves, isn’t it? Well, if you ever get a chance to meet one of these 10,000 villagers, you will be greeted with the same warmth and playfulness as that of a child or even a bird. UNESCO recently declared it as an endangered language in need of protection, encouraging the villagers to hold an annual festival to celebrate the language and even encouraging them to keep teaching it in local schools.
  • Moving to a different part of the world, the basins of the Amazon river in Brazil used to host the Mura language. All of its dialects are extinct now, except the Piraha language. The interesting thing about the Pirah is that it does not allow recursions or nesting – a linguistic property that allows inserting phrases into phrases. Such as one can say, ‘The chairs are broken’ or add a phrase to it and say, ‘The chairs that were blue in colour are broken’. Pirah grammatically does not allow this adding information to information.
  • What makes it interesting is that all languages in the world tend to follow a universal grammar – a term coined by Naom Chomsky – that are certain traits or rules that appear in all languages irrespective of their area of origin. Any language, created out of the human mind, would allow recursions or nesting of information. When Danny Averett found out that Pirah doesn’t seem to allow for recursion, it brought a lot of linguistic theories to question. The bottom line though would be that every sentence in Pirah will have to be extremely small and simple. It might be tempting to assume that the users of these languages are simple minded but that’s not true. The culture emphasises on the ‘here and now’ of their reality. A lesson in mindfulness, that they did not have to learn through a million books or Yoga courses, but simply came to them as a result of their language. The language also does not have any number words or colour words. They simply use words similar to ‘dark or light’ and ‘many or few’, hence probably showing us how they simply don’t feel the need to concretely compare things at all times.
  • The Guggu Yimidhhir language spoken by the an aboriginal community in Australia do not speak of direction in terms of left and right, but always in terms of east, west, north and south. Most languages have an ego-centric way of giving directions. This means when you need to ask someone to walk or put something in given direction, you ask them to do it their left or right in relation to the person. However, in Guggu Yimidhhir , you wouldn’t ask someone to hold a cup in their left or right hand, but in the cardinal direction their hand is in at that moment. The speakers are hence always oriented and know where the north, east, west and south are. If the speakers of Guggu Yimidhhir are asked to arrange pictures or events in order of time, they wouldn’t arrange it in left to right as we do, but from east to west as the sun goes. Their sense of direction and time is not fixed in themselves or to their bodies, but fixed to the land they live on.

Languages have a life of their own. There are thousands of languages around the world, and some studies say that one language is dying each week. As travellers, keeping our ears open, and paying attention to how sentences feel different when locals translate it for us, could tell us as much about their culture and values as a heritage site would do. Locals who are old, might tell you about the languages they used to speak as children, and how they have changed or disappeared. You may not necessarily walk yourself into the most ‘ancient’, ‘fascinating’ or ‘erotic’ languages, but you will definitely find languages , irrespective of whether you understand them or not, trying to tell you their own stories through their tones, gestures and loose translations. People who speak different languages will pay attention to different things depending on what their language requires them to do. Paying attention to local languages will not only enrich you with their view point, but giving you a deeper insight into how your language, and hence the way you look at things or the way you think, is different.

“Just learning to think in another language, allows you to see your own culture in a better view point” – Gates Mcfadden

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