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Why Learn a Second Language
by Tamim Ansary
If you speak English, why bother learning a second language? After all, English
is spoken in most countries now, and it's spreading. You don't need French to
order a sandwich in Paris, not anymore.
But learning a second language isn't merely about ordering a meal in a foreign
country. It's about perspective. Every language is a lens. If you were born
wearing pink glasses and could never take them off or exchange them for another
shade, you would assume the world is pink without even being aware of pinkness
as a quality--pink as compared to what? In the same way, if you know only one
language, it's hard to be aware that you are looking through a lens: You think
you are simply seeing the world as it is. Fluency in a second tongue gives
you a chance to see through a different lens. That can help you realize that
some part of what you are seeing is not the world, but the lens--even when you
go back to your original language.
Inside two languages
I've been fluent in two tongues for as long as I can remember. My father was a
Farsi-speaking Afghan, my mother an English-speaking American. In my family, we
borrowed words back and forth between the languages, but I always knew they
could not be combined. Each was a world. When I switched languages I switched
Shortly after arriving in America, I remember, I hit on a "foolproof" scheme for
selling fiction to Esquire Magazine: I would, I thought, take a story already
published in the magazine and replace each word with an exact synonym. It didn't
work. You probably guessed that. Looking back, I laugh at the harebrained folly
of my scheme. Yet no one laughs at the translator, who proposes essentially the
same project--to replace each word in a written text with its exact synonym in
What's in a word?
Translation assumes that humanity has some finite collection of meanings in
common and that each language has a word for each meaning. Actually, of course,
words denote things people have noticed, and different peoples have noticed
Last summer, I was in Colorado with a bunch of my Afghan cousins, sitting on a
lawn and lazing away the summer afternoon. As the light sank, one cousin said,
"Let's go indoors. I'm getting qukh."
My Farsi has faded somewhat in the many years since I left the Farsi-speaking
world, and qukh was new to me. "What is qukh?"
"Well," said my cousin, "you know, how if you sit on grass long enough,
especially late in the day, the moisture rising from the earth makes the fabric
of your pants damp?"
"And you know how the damp fabric clings to your skin?"
"And when you pull the fabric away, your skin feels kind of bumpy and itchy?"
"Well, that's qukh!"
Now, this usage may seem so precise and limited that one would rarely find a use
for it, even if the word existed in English. But the very next day, driving to
Aspen, my back was sweating against the vinyl seat; it made the shirt stick to
my skin; and after a few hours I had to pull over because--well, I was feeling a
bit qukh. Since then, I have noticed ever so many instances of this phenomenon.
Part II: The trouble with translation
Of course, English could adopt this word, or any word, if English speakers found
it useful. That's what languages do. But once a word comes into English, it is
used in real-life English-language situations, in letters and literature and
conversations, and thus accumulates associations that make it an organic part of
the experience of English-speaking people. These associations and connections,
these capillaries of meaning, seat the word in the living flesh of the English
language. And every word in a language has such capillaries connecting it to all
the rest of the language. We don't see them but if we know the language, we feel
them: They are a part of its meaning.
This hits me every time I play around with translation. Once, for example, I was
trying to translate a ghazal, a sonnet-length lyric, by the 14th-century poet
Hafez from Persian (a.k.a. Farsi, a.k.a. Dari) into English. Translated
literally, the first two lines of this celebrated poem go as follows:
If that Turk from Shiraz were to capture my heart,
I would give away Samarkand and Bokhara for her Hindu mole.
I suppose it's no use telling you that this couplet thrums with mysterious
sensual resonance in Persian. Few English speakers will be convinced, especially
about the Eros.
But why is so much lost? After all, practically half the words in this couplet
are names. They sound and mean the same in English as in Persian. Samarkand,
Bokhara, and Shiraz are cities you will find on any English-language map. And
even in English, Turks are Turks and Hindus are Hindus.
Some translators fuss with synonyms to inject rhythm and rhyme into the lines,
hoping to recapture the music of the original. It's no use. At the end of the
day, you're still left with that Turk. And that mole.
And that's the problem. The Western ear comes to this couplet with associations
drawn from Western history and literature. In the West, ever since the Crusades,
Turk has meant "brutal menace on the eastern frontiers of Christendom." In real
life, Turks include men, women, and children, but in the network of
English-language associations, Turk is fundamentally male--a brawny,
scimitar-wielding male. Those invisible capillaries of meaning feed all that
extra meaning into the mere word.
In the Persian network of associations, Turk is more complicated. Even there,
the label brings power to mind, Turks having formed the ruling aristocracy of
every Muslim society from Delhi to Istanbul for 800 years. But it's not a
shadowy Other looming beyond the borders, it's our own, familiar power
elite--kings and queens presiding over courts, doling out patronage and favors.
You might say that in Hafez's world, Turk evoked a feeling roughly like American
might in today's industrialized West.
And in those same societies, Persians also commanded an authority of their own,
based on a supposedly more ancient cultural sophistication. They contributed
poetry, art, perfume, an appreciation of gardens--and Shiraz epitomized the
romantic Persian city. It was the Venice of the Persian world.
Samarkand and Bokhara may be mere place names to the Western sensibility, but to
the Asiatic ear, they evoke the same mythic splendor and decadent luxury aroused
in the West by such names as Byzantium, Babylon, or Rome. Hindu filters into the
Western sensibility through the British colonial experience, but for Persians
Hindus were within a familiar civilization, interlaced, highly relevant, and yet
exotic. An analogous figure for Westerners might be the Japanese: clearly
industrialized, clearly modern, and yet exotic.
Finally, there's that mole. Westerners don't go for moles. No, no, we just
don't. It's no better if they're Hindu moles. No mole at all is the look we
prefer. No accounting for taste. Frankly, 30 years ago, I never would have
guessed that stylish young American women would one day sport tattoos or that
guys would find tattooed women attractive.
In short, to convey any hint of what Hafez was up to in that famous couplet of
his, a translator might have to go with something like this:
If that American in Venice were to coo "I love you too,"
I would barter Babylon and Rome for her Japanese tattoo.
But would that really count as a translation? Now you've got the
capillaries--maybe--but you've lost the word. You see the problem.
Part III: Kaleidoscope world
And the problem goes beyond vocabulary. A view of the world is embedded in the
very structure of a language, any language. Pronouns, for example, have no
gender in Farsi. A religious statement never forces or lets you assign a gender
to God. In French, by contrast, even bicycles have gender, as do abstract ideas,
and their modifiers must conform. What do fluent speakers of this language see?
I have trouble imagining.
In Turkish, I am told, the first vowel in a sentence determines what all the
other vowels in the sentence will be. Change the first word and the whole
sentence sounds different. Hmm.
Tahitian consists almost entirely of separate word parts that stand alone. You
need a whole sentence to express all the meanings that English can pack into a
single highly inflected compound verb.
By contrast, Finnish lets you combine more or less any number of word bits and
affixes to create single words that express what would take whole sentences to
say in English. Juoksentelisinkohan, a combination of seven little word parts,
is a single word that means, "I wonder if I should run about aimlessly?"
A French teacher in Colorado once said to me, "My students keep asking, 'How do
you say this or that in French?' And I'm at a loss because the real answer is,
Creating meaning together
Today, we're all doing high-stakes business across the globe with speakers of
other languages. These interactions are always conducted in somebody's second
language or through translators. I hope I've demonstrated that translation has
some limits. Virtually no message can be mapped directly from one language to
another because the act of translation severs countless tendrils of assumptions
and understandings that wed that message to its entire cultural context.
Any encounter between two languages involves an intersection between two whole
frames of reference. Fluency in a second language cultivates an ability to put
oneself in another point of view. Monolingualism makes it more difficult to see
that one even has a point of view. Communication, I think, can occur only when
both parties are able to imagine the existence of another whole frame of
reference. Only then can they approach a conversation as an exploration in which
the two parties build a common meaning together--a new and shared frame of
And that is why, in my opinion, the world would be better off if we all knew at
least two languages--any two.
© 2009 Tamim Ansary
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