The Power of Language

by Timothy Losbog

Photo Credit: Francisco Hui

What goes into a language? Have you ever really wondered just what — at the most basic levels — you’re doing when you speak with someone? Your mind conceives an image or concept, it picks out the words you need to express that concept, it arranges these words into a sentence based on rules that you know without really knowing, it determines the sounds and mouth formations needed to form that sentence, and then you utter that sentence aloud. And then whoever works as your “receiver” — ideally — receives and “decodes” your message to understand what you’re saying. Ideally, at least.

Language Taken for Granted

So, what happens when we encounter a language or communication system we are unfamiliar with? Simple: you don’t understand it. Here in the United States, where English dialects are dominant, it’s easy to neglect and forget second-language learning when Americans find they won’t use it often. And when the time comes that they finally come in contact with someone with a different first language, they’re lost in the words that they don’t understand. Even as we develop ways to streamline real-time translation, the technology isn’t perfect and we can lose very particular meanings in the literal translation. Communication is everything. Especially now in a time where we can easily find ourselves in contact with folks from anywhere around the world.

The Languages of the World

Just how many languages are in the world? Counting only the languages in use, you’re looking at over 6 thousand different languages and dialects. Just how many do you think you can list off the top of your head? Remember: even if some regions have the same “standard” language, there could be another spoken dialect or completely different language used in that region! For example, you might be familiar with Mandarin and Cantonese, two of the predominant languages in China. But have you ever heard of Hokkien? It’s a Chinese dialect spoken in Southeastern China and other parts of Southeast Asia. Hokkien itself can be divided further into different subgroups: Taiwanese Hokkien, Southern Malaysian Hokkien, and Philippine Hokkien.

You’ll find countless other languages you’ve never heard of in countries you’re familiar with: Ainu and Okinawan alongside standard Japanese in Japan; Ilocano and Cebuano along with the national language, Tagalog, in the Philippines; and Marathi and Punjabi alongside Hindi in India. Even more astounding, different languages can grow to integrate into each other to form an intricate dialect that switches between each other! You’ll find the Chinese population in the Philippines speaking Philippine Hokkien along with Tagalog and English — switching between all three in seamless “Hokaglish.” Of course, learning the “standard” or national language of a country is the safest bet if you want to communicate with the people of that country. But language conveys more than just ideas.

Languages and Culture

While there is debate as to which influences and develops the other, it’s accepted that language and culture are intimately intertwined. The way a language is used can say a lot about the culture of the people who speak it. For example, in English we use the phrase “wasting time” or “spending time”; it lends the idea that time is as precious as money to be spent on things of value. Watching how strictly the common American stick to their schedules, it’s hard to deny that as true. Meanwhile, in Tagalog, we use a phrase “maitim ang dugo” (literally “dark blood”) which refers to an evil or bad person. It shows an emphasis on the body and its relationship with others. In Filipino culture, there are rules when referring to and speaking with elders that change depending on the difference in age between speakers.

These subtle details show that, in learning a language, you are introduced to the intimate characteristics that make up its speakers’ culture.

Learning a Language and What It Means

It’s no secret that learning a language can be difficult: it takes time, dedication, and practice. But the rewards you reap from it have a weight to them. What does it say to someone when you have taken the time to learn their language? What does it say to you when someone has taken the time to learn how to communicate with you, your community? It is a heartwarming experience.

Learning the language is perhaps one of the greatest, if not the greatest, respect you can pay to a culture and its people. So, make that effort! Do you want to learn a language for its utility? Do so! In the professional setting, multilingual ability gives you an edge and versatility in communication. Want to learn because you want to go abroad? Well, no one wants to be stranded in a country with no means of communicating! Do you just think the language “sounds beautiful” to you? That’s fine, too! As I said, language is intimately connected to culture. And what of sign languages? The same applies! A hearing person going out of their way to learn sign languages is a gratifying thing to those in the deaf culture.

As you learn a language, you develop an understanding for all the little, underlying meanings below the words beyond the literal translation. The language barrier is daunting, yes. But with time and effort, we can overcome it.

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