We just welcomed some brand new coworkers into this crazy, life-changing, emotional-roller-coaster of a job we call language and culture acquisition, which got me to thinking again about the complex tapestry that makes up human communication. And I thought I’d share a little bit about a few of the strands of that tapestry, so you can pray for anybody you know who lives and functions across languages and cultures:
Apparently the human mouth can make about 500 different sounds, not even counting tone, volume, or length. And you can rest assured that if a sound is possible to make, there’s a language somewhere out there that uses it. Whether or not it’s possible for YOU to make will be the question when you decide to learn that language.
Hearing those sound differences can be tricky too. Which ones will be hard all depend on what language(s) you already speak and thus which sounds you’re used to hearing. Someone who speaks a language that pronounces the ‘h’ sound on the end of words, for example, would have no trouble hearing the difference between these pairs:
bawa: to carry
But for us English speakers, who don’t ever pronounce the ‘h’ sound on the end of words even when a word is spelled that way, the difference is very hard to hear and we might not even realize there is a difference at first.
We tend to think of word meanings as an entry in the dictionary, but really they are more like a circle that we call “range of meaning.” Words in each language have their own ranges of meaning that are almost never exactly the same as the range of meaning of any single word in another language. For example if you learn a word in the national language here for which the English translation is “ask,” you might assume you can use that word to ask a question as well as to ask someone to do something for you. But you can’t. There is a totally different word for making a request than there is for asking for information.
What to Say
Before you figure out how to say things, you have to figure out what things to even say. As an English speaker, you might be tempted to come into a new language situation with a mental list of the first things you’ll need to learn how to say (hi, how are you?, it’s nice to meet you, etc.) only to learn that people meeting on the street don’t say “Hi” or “How are you?” They ask “Where are you going?” And you definitely don’t say “It’s nice to meet you” when you meet someone.
The Meaning behind the Meaning
Cultural understandings and assumptions inform everything about how language is used and understood. That’s why it’s so vital to learn them together as one, inseparable unit. How else will you know that when you ask “Do you know where my shoes are?” you might actually be asking, “Did you steal my shoes?” Or if you say, “I like your shirt” you’re actually asking for the shirt off someone’s back.
Limitless Capacity for Expression
I’ve said this before. The same God who created galaxies and atoms also hard wired the human brain for communication. Why would we expect to find a group of humans or their language anywhere on this planet that doesn’t rise to that challenge in beautiful, complex, remarkable ways? Why should we be surprised to find that language, like everything else touched by the Creator’s hand, is fearful and wonderful and very, very good?