Words have the power to tell a story. The words that you chose determine how you tell the story. The purpose for saying the words is why you tell the story. You use words to explain whom the story is about and where the story takes place. Most people use words every day to communicate with others. We can understand each other because we share words in a common language. The language you use influences the fundamental process that you use to think. The language in which you think modifies how you perceive an external stimulus. These words, thoughts, and perceptions create an identity for you as the speaker.
Now, I want you to reflect on the identity of different countries. What does this have to do with words? Their language? Oh, but it has everything to do with their language. So back to my first reflection prompt: reflect on the identity of various countries. Let’s start with the United States of America. Typically, the United States is viewed as a collection of independents, indulgent to a point of selfishness, and with a strong emphasis on self sufficiency. Heck, the American Dream is a national ethos built on the freedom to achieve. The majority of this country’s inhabitants speak English. In English, the standard syntax is subject, verb, object. Because of this, the frame in which we speak is implicitly selfish. The center of the sentence is the personal pronoun “I”. Everything proceeding the sentence reacts to “I”. The behaviors and attitudes of English-speakers largely reflects their language.
Translate these following sentences into Spanish:
“I like to write.” –> “Me gusta escribir.”
“I forgot my book at home.” –> “Se me quedó el libro en casa.”
If you literally translate what was said in Spanish, it will sound like “Writing is pleasing to me” and “My book stayed at home.” Sounds odd, right? Typically, English speakers do not frame their sentences in this way. Notice how the Spanish translations places writing and book as the subjects of the sentences. It’s not about the speaker; it’s about the subject of interest. Writing embraces the role of being a desired activity, a pleasurable activity if you will, therefore the significance is placed on writing, not one’s self. Notice then how Spanish culture is notably generous. In the two summers I spent in Belize, lower-class mothers catered to my needs, giving me a home and what food they had. Children would offer me their most prized drawings. They hadn’t even the supplies to make the drawing until I provided it for them and yet they offer me the product of hours of their time with notes of gratefulness and love. The benevolence in these people was astounding. A component of this kinds is surely due to the selfless nature of the language in which they think, speak, then act. Furthermore, Spanish speakers tend to be less uptight than inhabitants of American society who generally takes blame heavily upon themselves. In the sense of forgetting the book, my Spanish professor, a skinny mellow 5 foot 6, black sneaker-wearing old man, once phrased it “the book takes the blame for being forgotten.” Americans hurry through an extensive schedule. Every single day. (Stereotypically speaking. But stereotypes don’t come from nothing…) People in Granada, Spain take a nap around 2-3pm. Every single day. The streets are quiet during this time. People relax.
Clearly, language dictates how you interpret the world around you. Knowing another language is like having another perspective on life.
So I declared a major in Spanish as part of my studies at the University of Michigan because I wonder how having another language would influence how I perceive the world around me and how I perceive myself. Not a bad idea for you, in any language, to try out a new perspective.