On language, culture, identity, and the confluence of them all.

*I’m going to preface this post by saying that, while I do speak a second language (and often times more fluently than others), I can only slightly claim it as my own. I’ll go in to this in greater detail later, but I really believe the people to whom this all applies are those that come from one language environment and then somehow, through some circumstance, end up spending a great length of their lives in another. So while I can claim to know in some ways what this is all about, and can use this to explain a great deal of my sort of personal psychosis, I imagine it happening on a much deeper level to natural bilinguals.

I find it only slightly coincidental that my entire day has been spent contemplating the semantic meaning of this thing and that image. I’ll even admit to working on an ad that isn’t quite finessing into a polished piece and realizing only this morning that my written copy was saying something completely different than my semantic message. It’s easy to get caught up in what might look visually and formally appealing when your end client only wants something ‘pretty’, however deep down you know that all those involved will catch on when the message really isn’t being conveyed on a simple, semantic level.

It was also this past weekend that I ended up in part of a debate about identity- and not branding, or product ways. But instead the kind you develop as a person and at what point do you become secure in that place? And where, as a traveler, as a creative-as someone who is constantly pulling from this and that and being inspired by everything around you- where do you find balance between taking those things into your identity and letting them become a part of you (because you obviously truly love them) and where do you let them go in an effort to remain true to your original self? The debate never got settled and the question remains in a similar status to that of the chicken/egg: which occurred first? The artist formed an identity out of inspiration or the inspiration formed the identity of the artist? I’m still confused.

This morning, I was confronted from three sides by this lovely RadioLab video about words (and this is, in part, what spurred my recollection about the power of simple, iconic messages.)

That video is the companion to a RadioLab episode on the power and origin of language. One of the specific topics explored was the role of language in forming identity and intelligence. The particularly pertinent part comes when we realize that, according to some studies (and I forget the name to quote here) our entire identity is made up of the language bits we tell ourselves about ourselves. We also form this identity when those nouns, those agreed upon names are connected with concepts. Now, I’m going to stop there because it’s a fascinating program and I think well worth the listen (go here!).

It all comes full circle in this article, where the entire concept of language and its influence on culture, then learning, and ultimately on identity is examined.

Now here is where we get back to my disclaimer about fluency in other languages. Again, I was born to an English speaking family and grew up in the English speaking world. However, I have lived in Spain and traveled Ecuador, as well as other Spanish-speaking countries.

To speak the language is one thing, to be immersed in it is completely different. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment it happened, but I do know that there was a drastic change. And it may have been most notable one very hot, frustrating day in Spain. My host family had just sat down for la comida (lunch during siesta) and I had spent the better part of my morning haggling someone at the post office over a package, no larger than a check box that had failed to arrive for the better part of a month, but was now costing me almost thirty euro to retrieve. It was maddening. And all of this frustration came out in a flurry of Spanish curses, the story in great detail and my emotions pouring out to these people in the most natural tongue I’d ever spoken. I remembering them saying to me that I’d lost my Mexican accent and now sounded like a Spaniard (the majority of my education happened in the US and I worked for a few years as a translator where the clientele were almost entirely South American.)

“To have a second language is to have a second soul.”

And it is only after much traveling and absorbing of different cultures, not just ones where I understood the language but also those where I partially knew what was being said to me (the Italian of Rome was a challenge, but I got by. French will probably give me trouble forever) that I have come to form this understanding of myself as almost two separate things. I feel it most strongly when interacting with people from my past, that did not know me before my language.

I came to realize that, in obtaining this second language, I began to process knowledge in an entirely different way. Words are no longer as static, but they have instead become a bigger part of my visual understanding of the world. I cannot anchor them in one language because they have to function in two or more (I’m attempting Italian, it’s not going quickly. Bits of German and French get thrown at me and those, too, seem not to stick as well as the Spanish initially did).

But this more raw understanding of what language actually is has truly changed who I am as a person. It has created this entire, other world for me that is open only when you know that other language. It’s completely true that the senses are inexplicably linked to the names of things- that having ever tasted a tamarindo allows you to connect with an entire continent of people and they know what you’re talking about, but trying to explain it’s flavor to a country that’s never historically grown or imported them is next to impossible. My words fail me every time.

I lose track of the number of times I’m mid-conversation and attempt to use a Spanish word because I cannot think of a more appropriate English one. And I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve not noticed that a word was in one language or the other- on a sign, in a book, watching television and the program is interesting, but has no subtitles and no one else has any clue what is going on but I haven’t noticed the trouble. After a while, you just forget that there ever was a time where you had to switch back and forth.

Now, you can (and should) read the entire article. It, too, is pretty profound and brings to light some very specific questions about the natures of our intelligence and whether our acuity are based around their structure, our geographical positioning, or if it’s all really just connected in one big anthropological mish mash of identity crisis.

I’ve always enjoyed the debate regarding grammatical differences in blame: in English, you are at fault when you cause an accident and say something like, “I spilled the milk.” In Spanish, the literal translation places the blame on the object, stating that, “the milk fell away from me.” You have to imagine the social structure that occurs when grammar places blame indirectly, instead of directly. I’m not saying this is better or worse, but it’s certainly different. Ultimately, this semantic structural difference plays out on a much larger scale like this:

“Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.”

These differences all seem very subtle until you really contemplate how experiences shape you as a person, and then beyond that how experiencing something in a second language might shape even further/differently. The way we receive and grow within a language has so much to bear on out attitudes, our perceptions, and above all else our perspectives. To possess more than one language, regardless of their time frame, and to have their cultures both coming together in your identity truly does create this feeling of being a larger sum than all of your bits.

I posed a similar question to a group of friends. We were parting ways, but I realized mid-conversation over drinks that their diverse backgrounds and open minds were exactly the differences in opinion I wanted to hear about. Is my experience with multiple languages (and how they then construct my identity) unique? Or is it normal for any multi-lingual to find difficulty in arriving at a concise, concrete personal identity? They’ll come back to me next week with reflections and more questions than I’d even imagined, as they always have.

In the end, you can look at it two ways. By simply defining your identity as a result of experiences and nothing more, be they language based or otherwise. Or, you can imagine that this language you use (or languages) has created a way to receive stimuli and process things that is markedly different. I’ll argue for a mixture of both, as I know that the experience carry great weight, but the language is the ultimate connector and gives meaning to those experiences.

“The next steps are to understand the mechanisms through which languages help us construct the incredibly complex knowledge systems we have. Understanding how knowledge is built will allow us to create ideas that go beyond the currently thinkable.”

(All quotes taken from Lost In Translation article by Lera Boroditsky)


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