Wednesday, May 05, 2010

On Language

I've been mulling over our language, specifically our pull at moments to speak it, for a little while, mostly because of my mom. Originally from China, she speaks Mandarin and Cantonese in addition to fluent English. She always speaks English with my dad, my sister, and me (since we're not as fluent in Chinese as she is in English!) But when my Chinese grandparents (who speak very little English) are over, it's a different story. Is this some kind of language peer pressure? It's even evident when there are people around who my mom doesn't even know. For instance, I remember once being in Hawaii. My mom and I were at a hotel lobby, and a Chinese couple across from us started a discussion in Mandarin. Suddenly, my mom started speaking to me in Chinese.

I do think that the language the people around you speak can have an impact on the way you, yourself, speak. At the most basic, it would obviously explain why babies in Iceland grow up speaking Icelandic (since no other reason would explain someone trying to speak that impossible language--that volcano that erupted is called "Eyjafjallajokull"), and babies in England grow up speaking English.

Of course, there are isolated incidents that have nothing to do with the people around you. I know a couple of words of French--merci, oui, and excusi-moi (if I'm spelling that correctly--it's excuse me). I got used to saying the latter when I was in France, mostly in cases of ducking through crowds at crowded museums like the Louvre. That trip was a couple of years ago, and yet, going into my dad's office, I sneezed. Instead of saying excuse me, "excusi-moi" slipped out.

Whatever our pull to certain languages may be motivated by, it's an interesting topic to think about. And now I have to go eat dinner. Adios.


  1. Well I don't know if it's really language peer pressure per se . Maybe more "When in Rome..."
    One thing I've noticed about language is that it can trap people into modes of thinking. My old professor is Korean, and when he speaks with the Korean students in his mother tongue, he talks to them very strictly and in the form reserved for people higher up in the pecking order. But in English, there's no real equivalent for this style of speaking, so he speaks to me in quite a relaxed way. When switching conversation between the Korean students and me, he visibly changes his facial expression from a subtle grim frown to a friendly smile. Sometimes, he'll even get mixed up and talk to me with a frown. It lasts about 2 sentences, and then his English/friendly mode kicks in.

  2. Hola!

    As you've been figuring out, language is more of a social phenomenon rather than some instruction you get at home. That could explain why Chinese can explain the whole meaning of life with 2000+ words, while English/Spanish or whatever may need 500,000+ or more just to go on.

    Great keynote at TED, just saw it. Cheers!

  3. Anonymous10:47 PM

    BTW, it's "excusez-moi" :) nice blog!

  4. I like how this guy expresses on this particular topic, have a look at this:

  5. "The language the people around you speak can have an impact on the way you, yourself, speak."

    True words Adora. This can be extended to "the characters of people around you influence your character" as well.

    Great job on the blog...saw your speech at the TED conference :)

  6. Yesterday I was told by an old journalism lecturer of mine that my not speaking fluent Mandarin (being of Chinese descent) was a 'character flaw' given that I would have much more employment options if I did. Just something to think about.

    The real reason I stopped by today was to let you know how much I admire you, and to thank you. I saw your TED address a few weeks ago all the way in Sydney, Australia, and it (among other events in my life) really inspired me to pursue my dream of becoming an editor of my own magazine, despite the countless times I've been told I'm not old enough to. I'm now working to launch a magazine called IF in 100 days.
    I've written about you on my blog a couple of times now:

    I'd love it if you could check it out and let me know what you think of my grand plan!

    Jane :)

  7. Goodness....being almost ..what...4 times your age...I am seeing an equal before me.
    Trust me -- learn Cantonese, it is the original dialect of Chinese, and come to Hong Kong and learn it for here we spiced it up with influence from whatever culture that can add to its flavor.
    Bravo on your TED talks!!

  8. Israeli geeks, which me and most of my friends are, speak Hebrew and English at similar levels of fluency.

    I had many occasions to think of the question you raise.

    I have one anecdote that may teach about the way the mind deals with this:

    Whenever I hold multiple Instant Message sessions at the same time, I tend to stay in the same language I was last using (I call it "Alt-Shift avoidance", after the key combination to switch languages. I touch-type, so the reason is definitely not technical).

    Thus, for example, if I began a conversation (arbitrarily) in Hebrew, then I will continue it and every other conversation that begins in Hebrew. If some force is stronger than inertia and makes me Alt-Shift (for example, someone from the US IMs me), I will switch all conversations to English. If I am talking to three people, one who understands only Hebrew and one only English, I will talk with the third 50-50 (which will drive him really confused and make him ask, which is why I have this phenomenon so developed in my thinking and even have a name for it).

    Among other things that might drive me to switch are expressions that only exist in one language ("beating a dead horse" doesn't make sense in Hebrew, "no bears and no forest" makes no sense in English); a word that has additional connotations for me in one language ("arbitrary" is translated exactly as "shri-ru-ti", but all the Computer-Science connotations only exist for me in English, the language in which I learned CS, so I am prone to switch to English for it; also, words widely used in sci-fi or fantasy literature sound just wrong to me in Hebrew, since I speak it enough to know them in unrelated connotation, but perfectly natural in English, where I have first encountered them in the connotation in which I am using them. "Dwarf" comes to mind as an example - in Hebrew I'd imagine a small person, or perhaps a garden figurine or a cartoon character, while in English I'd imagine first a gold-and-ale-loving beard-growing axe-wielding tough guy, and just then those other things).

    In real-world conversations, I have less "Alt-Shift inertia" - I am just as prone to remain in the new language as I am to switch for just a single world.

    Many of my friends have similar language-switching behaviors, but some differ.

    -- Aur

  9. Hi! I'm Ruri, 12 years old and I'm your fan from Japan :)Wonderful writing, and extremely witty as well! I won't be surprised to see your name on the New York Time Bestseller in the near future.
    By the way, have you ever read Jodi Picoult before? I strongly recommend it to you, if you haven't. She's ingenious with writing; although the plot is sombre and dark, it's humourous and moving at simultaneously. The other amazing thing about her is that there's always hidden meaning behind the actual sentences, and I immensely enjoy to figure them out.
    Anyways, you're a gifted writer, and I'm looking forward to your new books!!

  10. I like how you added a bit of humor to the end! :D

  11. Anonymous3:56 PM

    There's something in linguistics called 'accomodation' which might be of interest to you!

    Also by speaking the same language/the same standard of english you create solidarity with the other speakers.