Expat Generation: Language is a reflection of culture, learning a new language is a reflection of yourself

There’s a certain wilderness to innate thought that we will never be able to capture. This is because our own thought has been tamed and civilized by language. Our thought has become structured, formed by the sounds and shapes of words. 

Language seems so intimate to us and visceral to our life experiences. Indeed, it is hard to differentiate language from thought. They seem so interchangeable, but they are not. There’s a difference between what is innate to us and what is not, between what is universal and what is learned.

Language is learned. It gives voice to our thoughts. It is a liberator, allowing our thoughts and feelings to escape the vicinities where they were concocted, felt and communicated to the world. We take language to be our own but we forget that it never was, and even as it releases our minds from inner silence, it constricts our thoughts to the molds of a particular language’s grammar logic and sentence structure. Learned rules that are not your own.

Language is a building block. It might seem the most infantile building block, but it is one nonetheless. The untrained brain, that is, the mind without language, is but the map of a virgin rainforest, untouched by humans and living by its own rhythm. A language of its own, we might like to say, except it has none. It is the absence of language; nothing about it is learned.

What do these blocks build up to? Culture. Language is the collective brain of an entire people, and as a young infant learns a language, she becomes one more link in that particular network of human ingenuity. 

French is subtle. Its tones and accentuations are soft and smooth, like the creamy pastries and soups its cuisine is celebrated for. Its flow is legato, like simmering melodies or the brushstrokes of a lily pad pond on an impressionist canvas. 

French is subtile, like a Parisian woman lighting a cigarette while she sips Bourgogne, with rouge on her lips and the faintest glimmer of a smile in her eyes. Is it inviting? Uncertain. But what can be expected given the language? 

French flirts with equivocality. Aimer can mean everything from obsessive love to the faintest inclination of acknowledgement. French is rational, with a signature dab of eccentricism. It is the language of the enlightenment, of the metric system, of hot air balloons and baguettes.

Spanish is passionate. Amor is just one of a million different words and adjectives to describe in liveliest detail the rapture of an enamored heart. Spanish is saturated. Beyond the beating heart, red runs deep with the fervor and intensity of a bullfighter’s dancing cloak; an explosion of moving color is not only seen but experienced on dancing ladies in full-garbed traditional Mexican folklórico dresses. 

Spanish is honorable. A language of chivalry and gentlemen, of tradition and loyalty, of family values and proud obstinance, although we’d rather call it endurance. Spanish is loud. Staccato punctuates the air as a warm family gathering bustles around a table feast.

English is practical. Conjugations are simple. Articles don’t have gender. Everything is contracted. This is that and that is this. Any other language you stick a word of into English sounds incredibly fancy. But that is because English isn’t made for lumières to ponder; it’s made to put man on the moon. Or maybe fix a tire.

English is future-oriented. Unlike in other languages, here adjectives precede nouns. It is always looking forward. Big house, fast car, bright future. English is accomodating. It makes spelling rules it doesn’t care about in the slightest. Vowels are supposed to sound one way but if you really want to, you can spell out fish as “ghoti”. 

Yes, language is the first building block of culture, and in everything from its syntax to its accentuations to its structure, it reflects a particular way of looking at the world. Particular attention is given to certain ideas, such as emotions in Spanish, and a particular ambiguity in others, such as love in French. 

Each culture is unique and different, but all are learned. And in the learning of that first language in our infancy — which of course we don’t remember — we lose our wilderness of thought, drawing demarcations on the map in our brain around the kingdom of Czech or Arabic or whatever that first language might be, and leaving the rest of our brain unexplored. One day we might decide to venture out into the unexplored, to make new roads and draw new demarcations along the way. In learning a new language, we rediscover parts of ourselves we had lost contact with when we became fluent in our first.

While learning a new language you find yourself enraptured in an inexpressible kind of ecstasy at rediscovering those lost parts of yourself. Any time you experience a new culture, it feels foreign but also, strangely, so familiar. In some aspects it is much less foreign than that first one you’ve been used to for so long. 

The biggest joys perhaps are those first signs of fluency in a second or third language after months of hard work. You surprise yourself waking up from a dream dreamt in a different language and you triumphantly realize that that night, you ventured deep into that foreign unexplored and you never ventured out.

Javier Calleja Erdmann is a sophomore writing about the international student experience. His column, “Expat Generation,” runs every other Friday.