Saturday, May 4, 2013

Language and People

As our time in China rapidly draws to a close, I have been pondering the purposes for which we came and the lessons we have learned. (This is Spencer again.)

One of the most fundamental lessons of which I have been frequently reminded is the importance of people. Over the course of our time in flagship, classmates have become friends, and those friends (and their families) have become family. I'm guessing Alisha will end up writing a post discussing our flagship family, so I won't say too much here. Suffice it to say that those relationships are quite possibly the best thing to come out of our time in China.

As flagship is a language learning program, I have also given some thought to various aspects of language learning. Why do we learn languages? What is the point? Ultimately, I came to a fairly obvious conclusion: the point of language is communication. But what is communication? Too often, we think communication means talking. But why do we talk? Many people can talk for hours on end without saying anything. Others can express themselves quite clearly without saying a word.

Chinese has several different ways of expressing the ideas represented by the English word "communication." Two of the best translations for 'communication' are 交流(jiaoliu)--which often means 'exchange'--and 沟通(goutong), where the literal translation is to go through or connect a gutter/ditch/ravine (which is very similar to the English idiom 'getting your point across'). Simply put, communication is bridging the gap between people. Too often, we lose sight of this end purpose. We can't see the forest for the trees, or fail to communicate due to inordinate focus on language.

For the sake of this discussion, I have divided language learning into four levels. The first level is rudimentary phrases. Since language is a tool, we will liken this to the sledgehammer level. Many of us have a very basic grasp on several languages. We can ask "donday esta el banyo?" or "knee how mah?" in our worst gringo/American accent and still our point across. There's no subtlety to it, but we can make it work if we have to.

The second level is basic proficiency. This is like knowing how to use a ratchet set and screwdrivers. We learn formulaic expressions that we can plug into certain situations. Eventually, we learn to improvise and use the tools we have for situations that don't quite fit what we know how to handle (like using a screwdriver as a makeshift chisel). It may require some pantomiming, but it's amazing how well people all over the world can play charades.

The third level is advanced proficiency. In general, this is as high as you can get in a classroom. I'd liken this level to understanding how to use all the tools in a wood shop. You have your saws (table, circular, jig, scroll, etc.), your various sanders, your router/beveler, etc. Having mastered all these tools, you can accomplish a lot. You are comfortable in almost any situation, and can express yourself well--even eloquently--in the language. This is where most people consider themselves (or others) fluent.

I'll call the final level "understanding." This level is like heart surgery. It includes the surgeon's deep understanding of each of his tools (scalpel, forceps, etc.), as well as the physiology of his patient. Any fool can cut his finger open with a scalpel, but making the correct incision on a beating (or recently stilled) heart is something else altogether. This is when we move beyond linguistics to true communication. This is when we begin to truly understand the people with whom we interact. The culture of our "subject" sets guidelines for all our interactions, and we learn to truly think in the target language. I am often amazed at how the thoughts people can conceive or expressed are shaped by the language they use. (This principle is illustrated in George Orwell's 1984; it is also why many purists believe that the Quran and Torah should only be studied in Arabic or Hebrew, respectively.)

I am in no way claiming that I have reached, let along mastered, this final level for Chinese. But I have realized that even though my days of studying vocab lists for tests or creating sentences to properly use new grammar patterns are past, I still have a long ways to go to "master" Chinese. It is a path with no end, since I will never be truly Chinese. I can only hope to continue to gradually improve my grasp on the "Chinese" mindset, while refining my language skills. Of course, there is no single "Chinese mindset--just as there is no single "American" mindset. Each individual is unique, with their own personal history, background, world views, life experiences, et cetera.

And that is where we tie this back into the relevant lives of people who don't spend years dedicated to language study. To what extent do we achieve this fourth level of communication in our everyday interaction? How well do we speak the language of our boss, our coworkers, our children? Do we strive to understand why people feel the way they do? Do we phrase our conversations in ways that can be accepted by the recipient? Do we seek for mutual understanding? Just because the words coming out of everyone's mouths are English doesn't mean we're all speaking the same language.

All of our lives are invariable people-centric. As we learn to better communicate--regardless of whether we're speaking English, Chinese, or Russian--our lives will be enriched, and our interpersonal interactions and relationships will achieve greater depth and meaning. I certainly do not claim to be an expert in this area, but I am grateful that my experiences in China have helped me to better see the importance of effective communication. Hopefully I was able to effectively communicate parts of this principle to you. :)

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