Week 18 (5 – 9 March): Language

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved ...

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One of my greatest loves is language. I am constantly amazed at how language can move me emotionally, my adoration of well crafted phrase, or the perfection with which a scene or a character can be described. Language can capture our thoughts, desires, emotions. Yet, it can be so inadequate for the task also.

Watching my now seven year-old daughter learn French, English, and Vietnamese has very aptly demonstrated the critical period of language. Starting at about the age of two, she has been a language sponge. She absorbs words, meaning, concepts, and phrases. Her pronunciation of each language is perfect. She also is the perfect demonstration of productive versus receptive language: she understands far more in Vietnamese than she is able to express.

During the naming explosion, she was a Krakatoa of words. She spewed so many words so fast that she figuratively lit up our home with parental pride. She acquired grammar at an amazing rate. She overgeneralizes like all children do, but responds quickly, accurately, and even almost permanently to correction. Her time spent in telegraphic speech was very short. She went almost directly from one word to three words to grammatical speech.

My own experience learning foreign languages has taught me that after the critical period it is not easy at all to learn language. My ability to decode tones (Wernicke’s area) is quite limited. You may have noticed my struggles with spelling during class. In part, these problems are due to my inability to distinguish vowel sounds very easily. I also have trouble detecting the subtle differences that doubling a consonant makes when pronouncing a word. Consequently, I am reduced to guessing or remembering the spelling of words. Thank goodness for spell checkers!

Once I’ve learned the pronunciation of a specific word or phrase, though, I can repeat it with amazing accuracy. In Korea, I often fooled the Korean spouses of my friends by calling them up and asking for them in Korean. I often would hear the following exchange, “Honey, it’s for you!” “Who is it?” “I don’t know… some Korean.” Once past the greeting and request, though, my pronunciation gave me away.

I accept that the languages we speak do not significantly alter our thinking, but they do influence our thoughts. Mostly in social ways: how do you define or recognize a problem? What do you consider for solutions. Who do you ask for help? By living in non-American cultures, I directly experience the definition of a problem by individuals on an almost daily basis. For example, I am not always happy with how my housekeeper responds to situations in our home. She will leave light bulbs unchanged and tissue boxes unreplaced. As long as there is light from somewhere and tissue somewhere, they are not pressing problems.  Or, she may just be waiting for me to ask her to do them. However, I look at them as obvious things that I would want her to replace without me asking her to. It seems to me that any and every housekeeper would be safe in assuming that these are things to be done as a normal progression of her job in caring for our house.

The problem is, of course, is it the culture that shaped the thinking and language, the language that shaped the thinking and culture, or the thinking that shaped the language and culture. And, does it matter?


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