My Language Creates Me
By David Nunan
I’VE never met Costica Bradatan, but I would like to. I recently came across a newspaper article he wrote in the International Herald Tribune. I like the International Herald Tribune even though I usually only get to read it when I come across a copy left in a coffee shop or when it is distributed for free on an international flight.
On this occasion, I was flying from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. The flight attendant handed me a copy of the International Herald Tribune and I began leafing through it while waiting for the in-flight movie to begin. But then I came across an article by this man I’d never met or heard of and I immediately forgot about the movie. The article was called “Born Again in a Second Language.” In it, Bradatan talks about what it is like to write in a second language. He begins his article by quoting a French philosopher, activist and writer who wrote: “For any man [or woman] a change of religion is as dangerous a thing as a change of language is for a writer. It may turn out to be a success, but it can also have disastrous consequences.” He goes on to argue that a language is a way of experiencing the world. “The world reveals itself in a certain manner to the Japanese writer, and in quite another to the one who writes in Finnish.” A writer’s language is more than just a tool. It’s a part of who they are. The implication here is that in order to write in another language you have to become a different person.
If this is the case, then, presumably, in order to speak in another language you need to become another person. I’ll return to this point later. First I want to mention two people you’ve probably never heard of: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Together these linguists came up with a theory about language and culture that is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This hypothesis argues that our language shapes the way we see the world. While all languages share certain characteristics, there are aspects of a language that are culture specific. The language and culture into which we are born shape the way we think.
According to the strong version of the hypothesis,we cannot see what we cannot name. Indeed, certain American Indian tribes have no conception of time because their languages lack tenses and the expressions necessary to express time.
I hope that the connection between the ideas of Sapir and Whorf and those of Costica Bradatan is evident. All three share the view that a given language and the culture in which it is embedded present a unique perspective on the world, although the implications of this are not always clear and the “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has come to be highly criticized. Eskimo languages have many words for different kinds of snow whereas English has only one word; however, that doesn’t mean an English speaker can’t see the difference between slushy snow, hardpacked snow and so forth.
The fact remains that the way languages and cultures are constructed condition the way that we look at the world and determine what can and can’t be said in any given language. This causes challenges for those who have to translate from one language to another; for example, while Russian has words for different types of blue, it has no single word for blue. I am told that this presents considerable challenges for translators when translating an English text containing the word “blue” into Russian.
Bradatan argues that in order to write (or speak) another language, you have to become a different person. “To abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form.” This is a dramatic way of describing the process and may be an overstatement, but I think it contains a kernel of truth.
For language educators, the insight has profound implications. Acquiring a second language is much more than acquiring another code for expressing your world. It involves looking at the world in a different way. It also opens up choices and dilemmas when it comes to choosing which language to use. I have a friend in Hong Kong who, when she started writing a diary, chose to keep it in English, her second language, rather than in her native Cantonese. She said that she was able to say things in English that she simply couldn’t say in her native language. In choosing to use English, she was living out the adage that her language created her. tj
The complete article is available in Issue #273. Click here to order from Amazon