Surrounded by bilingual and multilingual people as I am on my Intercultural Communication course, I feel quite inadequate with my single language. For me, it’s not about the arrogance of believing that English is the international language and that I don’t need to learn another. It’s that I have no talent for languages. I’ve tried, taken countless hours of classes in German, French and Spanish, listened to audio tapes, used interactive computer learning modules, all to no avail. I still don’t even have much better than tourist-level proficiency in any language. I consider it one of my greatest weaknesses, and it’s a source of shame for me. Still, I haven’t let that stop me from exploring the world, learning about other cultures and developing close personal relationships with people around the globe.
Since beginning my studies, I’ve been confronted several times, in lectures, books and journal articles, with the opinion that you can’t truly understand a culture without learning the language. I’m not sure I buy it. Admittedly I haven’t delved deeper to see if anyone has backed up the opinion with proof, and maybe my own lack of language skills makes me biased, but I’m sceptical. For one thing, I’ve known many many people who are fluent in a second language, and yet remain completely monocultural, keeping their minds closed, holding onto their cultural biases. Their knowledge of the language doesn’t seem to have increased their cultural understanding at all. They seem, instead, to simply be translating, substituting words but not ways of thinking.
However, I do agree with Wierzbicka that delving into key words in a language can provide cultural insights. In fact, just learning a bit about the Japanese word “enryo” provided insights for me that I’ve already been able to put to use in my ongoing work with a Japanese client. It’s not being able to speak the words that are important, so much as it’s understanding what is behind the words.
So here’s my own theory: You can learn about and understand a culture without becoming fluent in the language, but not without developing insights into the emotions and beliefs that are central to it. Studying key words is one way to gain insights, but I suspect there are insights to be gained by examining other clues, including cultural icons, foods, customs and other behaviour.
But I still wish I could speak additional languages. And I’ll keep taking classes and buying the latest language CD sets. In fact, just last week I spent a day at The Language Show, and took my first lesson in Japanese. I think optimism must be an American cultural trait.