Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Impacts of Language

Even though I'm not much good with learning languages, I believe that learning Dutch is a valuable path to joining the people and culture here. The Dutch are nice about it, saying that it's a tough language and that everyone speaks English (actually, the language is very straightforward and there are many times that I get caught in situations where little English is spoken)

So, I've put effort into it, spending two separate weeks with at the talen instituut Regina Coeli in Vught: a wonderful, intense experience in language immersion. I never learned so much so fast.

image Nuns in Vught image

The difficulty now comes from two directions. My Dutch is improving, but still fairly elementary, so I'm limited to conversations at about the second grade level. The Dutch people's English is much better, but we still talk at maybe the high school level. We both try to communicate clearly and slowly, avoiding misunderstanding. It isn't baby talk, but I am aware that we both 'dumb down' the language by avoiding big words, colloquialisms, catch phrases, technical terms, metaphors, and other subtleties.

In the end, isn't our personal ability to express and understand diminished by this? Do we actually lose fluency by always choosing only the easiest word and safest phrase to communicate thoughts? Over time, do we lose more? Remeber, Orwell said that if you can't express it, you can't think it...

Then there is the remarkable discovery by Juan Manuel Toro et al., who demonstrated that "rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards", earning them the 2007 IgNobel prize for linguistics.

Maybe the rats just didn't care -- we all develop a skill for tuning things out now and then...

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