Language: a window to other worlds

Warning: The following article may contain blanket generalisations about national characteristics. If you are offended by stereotypes based on your country of origin, turn back now.

 The Spanish are always late. The Germans are very well organised. Americans are brash and uncultured. At some point in their lives, inhabitants of every country will inevitably find themselves judged based on characteristics perceived to be common among those who share their nationality. It’s often a great source of irritation to us when we travel abroad – “We’re not all like that!” we exclaim in our own defence. “That’s just a stereotype!” Yet we are often guilty of the same behaviour, whether we realise it or not.

So why do national stereotypes exist? The fact of the matter is: they’re useful. Different regions and cultures throughout the world all have, to a greater or lesser extent, a common set of values and behaviours that have evolved over time – ranging from national cuisine and dance to a shared belief in more abstract concepts, such friendliness to strangers or freedom of speech. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s what makes each place unique and gives us the wealth of diverse cultures we see around the world today.

However, it does provide something of a barrier when dealing with people with a different cultural background to our own. Familiarity with these different values is essential to ensure good mutual relations. For example, knowing that Germans generally set great store by punctuality may give us extra impetus to ensure that we are on-time and fully prepared for a meeting with an important Bavarian client, so that the business partnership gets off on the right foot. However, the issue with such stereotypes is that, while almost all of them have some basis in truth, they are often very general or reflective of out-dated attitudes. When applied without due care, national stereotypes can often have the opposite of the intended effect, bludgeoning a potentially fruitful relationship to death before it has chance to blossom.

How best to navigate this intercultural minefield, then? A complete disregard for received wisdom on different cultures could be just as disastrous as an over-reliance on it. One way of developing a deeper understanding of a country’s culture is to make yourself familiar with the language. As a shared form of communication within a culture, it stands to reason that the local language reflects the area’s shared values and identity. Learning the native tongue opens a window to these views, and allows us to see the world from the perspective of a different people.

Throughout my years of studying linguistics, I have always been fascinated by the aspects that make each language unique. English, for instance, seems to involve a disproportionate number of outlandish idioms: it rains cats and dogs; drug addicts go cold turkey; jealousy is a green-eyed monster. The world is our oyster, so we often do things off our own bat instead of just standing around like lemons. In fact, we’re completely bat-ty. I often feel that the way we describe the world is, quite frankly, bonkers. It must seem like some sort of cruel obstacle course to any poor soul learning English as a second language. Yet there is something in this approach that reflects part of our national psyche – we are nothing if not eccentric, and pride ourselves on our often surreal sense of humour; our ability to make light of any given situation.

Likewise, the Swedish language has a number of unique words that reflect a sense of homeliness and a desire for comfort and familiarity shared by many of the country’s population. The verb “trivas” translates roughly as “to feel at home,” but it also conveys so much more: a sense of belonging and complete satisfaction; a feeling that everything is right with the world. It isn’t restricted to home – a swimmer may “trivs” in water, or a rock star on a stage. Wherever the location, the existence of this word indicates a state of being that is obviously a central value for many Swedes.

There are many other examples of how language reflects common national characteristics and attitudes. It could be argued that the complex yet logical structure of German grammar is reflective of the people’s practical and systematic approach to everyday problem solving.  Saami tribes have an astoundingly diverse catalogue of words for categorizing the reindeer they herd, including goaisu (the male reindeer who keeps apart all the summer and is very fat when autumn comes) and spahči (one with tall, slender and quivering antlers). Meanwhile, on the banks of the Brahmaputra river, the Boro word gobra, “to fall into a well unknowingly,” tells us of an issue that is presumably widespread in north-east Indian society. The latter also has words to differentiate between different types of love – perhaps indicative of a greater level of emotional openness and intelligence that that prevalent in prim-and-proper British society.

I could carry on ad infinitum – the examples are many and varied, and this is one of the main reasons I love learning different languages. Wrestling with new terms and concepts for which we have no direct equivalent in our own language forces us to embrace new perspectives and see the world through someone else’s eyes. While we can make estimations of people’s attitudes based on their national background, without knowledge of how they describe the world themselves, we will always be on the outside looking in, unable to truly see through their eyes or walk in their shoes. As such, our ability to understand how their culture works will remain limited, at best. The more familiar we are with someone’s way of thinking, the more able we are to empathise with them and thus develop a good mutual understanding.

In today’s global village, it is more important than ever that we are all on the same wavelength, and language is essential to this. No individual should be judged solely based on where they come from, but on first encounters, we often have little else to go off. National stereotypes are useful tool, yet one that is often clumsy and blunt. A knowledge of different languages allows us to hone this tool and wield it more skilfully, broadening our perspective and allowing us to open the window to worlds outside our own.

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5 Responses to Language: a window to other worlds

  1. -a says:

    Dear Ian,
    thanks for the good read. 🙂 I believe “Dictionnaire des idées reçues” by Flaubert is a must-read for you.
    As for “trivas”, I always tend to translate it as “in seinem Element sein” when into German, which is a flexible enough of a translation, quite pragmatic, which should sit well with German mentality. 🙂

    If you want to sink your teeth into another major Swedish verb pivotal to the country’s mentality, try: “mysa”.

  2. kolyma42 says:

    Glad to be of service 🙂

    Mysa’s another great “cosy” Swedish word. Why do you think these kinds of things are important to you as a nation? Is it because you need something warm and comforting to help you deal with the cold winters?

  3. leakygrammar says:

    I enjoyed reading your perspective on this, always a thorny topic as you warned your readers in the intro, but worth exploring seriously. I think stereotypes tend to be ‘inductive proof,’ which is to say that exceptions to a stereotype are always ‘just’ an exception to the rule. And because of that, stereotypes tend to remain sturdy over time. I guess that’s why out-dated stereotypes still retain their vitality over time, they always offer some kind of reference to work off of, at least initially. As an American, I’ve had enough first hand experiences in my travels to attest to the fact that stereotypes die hard, maybe because as you said, there’s always a little grain of truth in there…Anyways the idea of the indcutive ‘proofiness’ of stereotypes comes from a post on Language Log I came across that you might find interesting…

  4. Pingback: Don’t be so homely! | Of Words and Worlds

  5. Pingback: When the language tank is full – Revitalising one’s language learning | Of Words and Worlds

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