“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”Nelson Mandela
I grew up in Australia, fully immersed in public schooling, where English was the language we learned through. At home and with my relatives we mostly spoke Greek, and such was my parent’s commitment to their mother tongue that I attended Greek School up until my graduated High School. To a large degree I was bilingual. At the time, I really didn’t understand what this meant, or why my parents wanted me to learn Greek formally. After all, I was relatively fluent verbally and this was the only way we communicated, through speech. As I matured, however, as I continued to explore the different cultures that I was a part of, I began to see the power of language. I saw ways that people expressed themselves in one language that had no direct translation to the other. I recognised that language, their language, was a part of their identity.
Language and culture are inseparable. On the surface, language is a form of communication, but once we look beyond that we can see that it is much more. It is a system by which different symbols (letters, words) are used to convey meaning, and it is only those things that carry meaning that exist in language. Of course, there may well be those things that carry meaning, deep meaning, for which language doesn’t exist, but that is another story. The story of poets.
As such, language is crucially important to culture. It encodes our beliefs, attitudes, and norms. It is the vehicle through which we think, create and maintain social ties, and pass on our ways to our children.
In the past, I have chosen to learn elements of other languages for functional reasons, for travel, for example. This “learning” served a purpose but told me nothing of the people with whom I exchanged the few words I knew. More recently, however, I have come to consider in earnest what a language may tell me of the worlds beyond my own.
Recently, I chose to start learning Italian and am doing so through a number of means. I have been using two pieces of software and a plethora of online resources to learn vocabulary and grammar, and I am finding it difficult. Italian is complex, with words that interchange depending on context, with regional variations, with a seemingly endless array of verb tenses. And doing it without being able to speak, to exchange, to identify misunderstandings, to pick up on nuances, is frustrating. Nevertheless, as I become a little more learned, I start to ask questions of why something is said in one way in one case, and in another way in a different case.
As with Greek, Italian has formal and informal versions where the grammatical structure I should use depends on the social standing I find myself in situationally. Using formal language around friends might be a little weird, but it is less troublesome than its opposite. Using informal language at the wrong time can give rise to some very awkward moments. For example, “Ciao” is a word we hear often and it can be used to say “hello” or “goodbye”, however it is a word that is appropriate only in informal situations such as for family or close acquaintances, including work colleagues. It might be considered as the equivalent of “Yo”, not really the word I would want to greet someone I didn’t know with. From a perspective of culture, such a dynamic tells me that social hierarchy is important to Italians, that it is a part of their culture, and a significant enough part to have its own form of language.
There is more. One of the things that intrigued me as soon as I began to recognise it through the interaction I had within and outside of my family, is that words exist in one language that have no direct translation in another. But why should this be if we are all human, why should something exist in one place but not another? There are many examples of this and in Italian perhaps the most lauded one is the expression Boh! As an English speaker, I could try and translate this to “I don’t know” but that misses what I have come to understand of its essence which is “I don’t know and I don’t care that I don’t know”. From a cultural perspective, this tells me that there is something there that is hidden, a casualness, if you like, a public willingness of Italian people to just let things go.
As I wrote above, language is the means by which we share meaning. One of the most common mistakes we can make is to assume that the meaning that we place within a symbol (or a word) is the same meaning that the recipient has. When talking with people in our own language the word “bad”, for example, may carry a very different meaning depending on the perspective of a person. This is where we find miscommunication arising.
This type of situation is even more pronounced where these symbols carry different cultural meaning, because the association of symbols to meaning is arbitrary. What a word means is defined by the history of the ways the symbol interacted with people. Colors are a good example of this; in different cultures colors may have different emotional (and practical) associations. As a teacher, I find the word “teacher” to be another such example. Depending on whom I am talking with, depending on where and how they grew up, I am granted a different social status, regardless of the label of “teacher”. Again, this tells me something of the people with whom I am interacting.
What I am finding very interesting, and heartening from a language learner’s perspective, is the number of loanwords between Greek and Italian. These are words that are similar, or identical in both languages: βάρκα, barca, (boat), for example. This surprised me at first but upon reflection on the history of the region, it made sense. Greece and Italy are geographically proximate, Latin, the parent language of modern Italian, evolved in part from Ancient Greek, and many parts of Greece were under Italian rule for a long time. My Italian vocabulary, it seems, has increased substantially.
To make up for the lack of verbal interaction I have started watching Italian TV shows (with English subtitles). The thing that struck me the first few times was the speed at which people speak. While I couldn’t make out very many words at all, I was quite taken by the way people spoke. The words dance to a rhythm, a happy accentuated lilt fills my ears. Why Italian is spoken in this way, I don’t know and I suspect it isn’t always like this, but I enjoyed listening, even though I couldn’t understand. However, as I continued my viewing exercises, I started to note that I could make out words more often, and then the occasional phrase, especially if I slowed the show down to ¾ speed. I can see myself among Italians asking puoi parlare più lentamente per favore? – can you speak slower please?
While this is hard work, it is incredibly stimulating both intellectually and emotionally, and I am very much looking forward to the day, hopefully soon, all being well, where I can immerse myself in the Italian world and find the hearts of Italian speaking people.
To all of you who are learning another language, I wish you well, and I hope that you come to appreciate how important this is to understanding and making connections with the peoples of our world.