Sunday, April 17, 2011

Public language made private

Partly because I teach a language, partly because I speak a few languages and partly because I'm in the process of learning a foreign language and forgetting a few others (Urdu, French and, yes, even English), I think about language a lot. If my mom is reading this, she would probably not be amused to learn about my latest personal foible: that while I can read a book or newspaper in Korean, a language I've spoken for less than three years, it's an ordeal to do so in my native language, Urdu.

So much discussion about foreign languages with ordinary people tends to boil down to long, dull explanations of: 1) why the person I'm talking to is bad at learning languages, 2) a narcissism of the small differences between European languages and 3) the "best" method to learn a foreign language. This is unfortunate, because I think that this is truly a fascinating topic, far more than the sophistic beat-the-test industry of Korea or the "Italian sounds so sexy" mentality of North America would ever admit or realize.

Somewhere around the time I started middle school, I began to feel more comfortable in English than in Urdu, and though I don't remember when exactly I started to think in English, eventually my parents and I had bilingual conversations. This wasn't the sort of conversation I hate, with words from one language mixed into the other, but a conversation where one person spoke one language and the other participant another.

I think my mom and I have many conversations where she speaks in Urdu and I speak in English, but when I speak to my dad, we seem to try and walk on eggshells by trying to accommodate the other. This is why sometimes I speak in Urdu to my dad and he responds in English, even though the opposite would be more comfortable for both of us.

A one-sided conversation like this doesn't fully correspond to Ludwig Wittgenstein's idea of a private language, but it does bring to mind the idea. A private language would be a language comprehensible only to one person in theory rather than practice (i.e. only I can understand this language, not that I am the last person who speaks this language). The idea of a private language raises its own set of issues which I will not discuss here, nor are one-sided conversations even close to the idea of a private conversation, though the idea of a person speaking in one language and being answered in another is a step in that direction.

At any rate, living in East Asia, where the three major states all speak different languages, I had always wondered how diplomacy worked. When Hillary Clinton met South Korean president Lee Myung-bak today, which language was spoken? How about when Lee meets Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan? Or, when Kim Jong-il speaks with Hu Jintao?

My answer, confirmed by Steve Herman from Voice of America and Sam Kim from the Korean news agency Yonhap, is that interpreters are almost always used. It's likely that Lee, the former head of Hyundai Construction, speaks English, but Herman says that "when I was in the room [Clinton and Lee] were using respective interpreters."

The insistence on speaking in two languages when you could be speaking one was not lost on me. It's not only an experience to which I subject my parents, but also some friends, many students, and even my boss. When I signed my current contract with my school, the administrator spoke in Korean which I generally understood. I replied in English which he mostly understood, but there was someone to translate anyway.

It also goes the other way. I teach classes in English only, with the exception of jokes or a precise translation of an otherwise fuzzy idea, and I find that about two-thirds of students will never speak to me in Korean. The other third, regardless of whether or not I understand, will speak in Korean. Many students take being addressed in Korean as something of an insult, in the sense that I'm switching to Korean because they couldn't understand the English, so they'll summon a stiff upper lip and reply in English.


Tuttle said...

Interesting post. You a fan of Wittgenstein?

Of course, MB does speak passable English, but no one at that level wants to risk the poorly chosen word in a second language, so they leave the translation to pros.

And sometimes even that goes wrong, a la Jimmy Carter's Polish remarks, when he told of his affection for the Polish people, but it was translated that he desired them carnally.

Adeel said...

Actually, I've never read anything by Wittgenstein. I focused almost exclusively on ancient philosophy in university. When I branched out a little, it was towards contemporary ethics or modern philosophy (St. Augustine).