Language mysteries abound in our world. Languages are enigmatic, often revealing as much as they conceal. Some languages connect to land rights, while others intersect with the experience of refugees. Learning a foreign language can be a matter of personal enrichment. But for others it is a matter of life and death. Language is a powerful tool of communication. Languages can bring healing, respect, and even enliven our imaginations if we let them.
Understood but Unspoken
Most people can understand more than they can speak in a foreign language. We as humans are hard-wired for this. From our first cry until we learn how to run, we take in a lot of comprehensible input, but we usually say very little. What is true for us as young children in our native tongues, is true when it comes to learning a foreign language. Many of us can recall being in middle school Spanish and understanding the teacher. We knew when to sit down, take out our papers, or raise our hands. But we would struggle to repeat those very same commands.
Language Mysteries and Receptive Multilingualism
Now imagine that you’re surrounded by eight different languages that you can understand but you don’t speak. That’s called receptive multilingualism, and you’d probably be on South Goulburn Island off of the North Coast of Australia. This small, linguistically diverse community captures one of the more fascinating language mysteries of the world. Here roughly 500 people understand nine different languages, although they don’t speak all of them. Even husbands and wives speak to each other in one language as their spouse responds to them in a different language. The reason is due to the complex social meanings tied to land rights and what language is being spoken.
This small, linguistically diverse community captures one of the more fascinating language mysteries of the world. Here roughly 500 people understand nine different languages, although they don’t speak all of them.
Language’s power is indeed enigmatic, but it is also emotional. Interestingly, one of the language mysteries of the world has to do with emotion. Something odd happens to people who know two or more languages when they get angry. When offended, they will often swear in a foreign language. Incidentally, there’s a scientific explanation behind this. When a person learns a foreign language, there is an emotional detachment that forms.
Language and the Experience of Emotion
Language learning is intricately tied to emotional experience. So when a person learns their native tongue, they do so in an emotionally rich environment that informs them how to use the language. However, when a person learns a foreign language, they typically have had fewer emotionally entrenching experiences. This does not mean that there are hordes of unfeeling bilingual burglars out there trying to wreak havoc on society However, what it does mean, is that if you’re interacting in a foreign language for business, medical care, or voting, it would behoove you understand the emotion that might be influencing your decisions.
Language learning is intricately tied to emotional experience. So when a person learns their native tongue, they do so in an emotionally rich environment that informs them how to use the language.
Pardon my French
Still think this language mystery sounds a little strange? Try traveling to a foreign country for a few weeks, and you will quickly understand. Internationally recognized writer and author Ta-Nehishi Coates did just that. Inspired by the mountain scenes he and his father created for his train sets when he was a child, Coates found himself wanting to learn French. So, he traveled to Switzerland.
Accepting and Appreciating Language Mysteries
When he arrived, he found himself surrounded by a cocoon of linguistic delights. He heard sounds soft and hard, long and short, different and often incomprehensibly beautiful. He stayed with a host family catching only bits and pieces of conversations. From those snatches, he attempted to extrapolate meaning while reading the context clues of body language. What started off as a mid-life crisis began to reignite his imagination, as he found himself surrounded by the lovely communal and seductive mystery of language. Although his journey often left him void of full comprehension, he learned to embrace the enigmatic space between the known and the unknown.
What started off as a mid-life crisis began to reignite his imagination, as he found himself surrounded by the lovely communal and seductive mystery of language.
Finding the Right Words
One place where it has been difficult to find the right words to express an emotionally and medically complicated situation is in Bangladesh. Millions of Rohingya refugees have flooded into the country in recent years, fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The Rohingya language has a more limited vocabulary and is a predominantly oral language, thus making the job of aid workers difficult, especially when trying to assess a patient’s needs.
Language Puzzles and Humanitarian Aid
Enter Translators without Borders. Translators without Borders is a nonprofit that seeks to “…close the language gaps that hinder critical humanitarian and international development efforts.” In order to help in this linguistically complicated environment, they created an online glossary to help aid workers use the right terms in Rohingya. This has helped them to understand what it means when a patient literally says, “My body is falling apart” (Would you have guessed that means diarrhea?). Showing such respect for the refugee’s language has allowed the aid workers to build a bridge of respect on which communication and lifesaving medicines can more easily flow.