Translating Intolerance

Ceiling in Cardiff Castle (If Google translate is correct: Nenfwd yng Nghastell Caerdydd)

“This place tried to turn my words into stones,” Seren says. She moved to rural Ohio less than six months ago with her husband and three daughters. Her oldest is a college freshman, the younger girls are in 3rd and 5th grade.

Seren grew up in New York City, an only child of busy parents who traveled often for business. Her Welsh-speaking grandmother lived with them and raised Seren on the stories, songs, and traditions of her homeland.  In her teens, Seren finally  visited Wales with her grandmother.  Soon after, her grandmother passed away but the language she imparted to her granddaughter thrived. Seren went on to get an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in Welsh studies.

She and her husband agreed they would raise their children in a dual-language home. Seren speaks Welsh to her children exclusively, her husband speaks to them in English. This is true both at home and in public. They know the benefits of being bilingual. Here are just a few:

  • Bilingual kids have enhanced social skills and communication abilities. In part this has to do with more experience understanding the perspective of the person speaking. This involves determining social cues and what’s called “theory of mind” — the ability to recognize one’s own motivations (intentions, beliefs, desires, knowledge, etc) and the understanding that others have their own motivations.
  • Dual-language students, in one study,  were a full grade level ahead of their monolingual peers in English-reading skills by the end of middle school. Some children in the study were just learning English, yet they outperformed monolingual native English speakers on tests. Chances are this has to do with the way learning two languages enhances executive function (working memory, impulse control, focus, and attention). Studies continue to show bilingual children have stronger executive function.
  • Early exposure to a second language affects how the brain organizes languages and improves its ability to learn a new language later in life, even if the first language is forgotten.
  • Bilingual people continue to benefit into old age if they continue to use both languages frequently. Brain scans indicate that bilingual people develop greater cognitive reserves. This extra gray matter makes a big difference. In people whose brains show similar levels of dementia, bilingual people show symptoms on average four years later than a monolingual person experiences them. This also may be true in stroke recovery. One study showed cognitive recovery was twice as likely for dual language speakers as for monolinguals after a stroke. Overall, using one’s brain to speak two languages actually delays cognitive decline.

Growing up, Seren says she remembers being a little worried each time a new friend met her grandmother because she and her grandmother spoke to each other in another language. But without fail her friends thought her grandmother was cool. Many of her friends incorporated a few Welsh words into their conversations in a way that became their own informal slang.

Seren’s older daughter also struggled a bit with a bilingual home when she was a teenager. But she’s also known from the time she was a small child that fewer and fewer people speak Welsh. Only 11 percent of people living in Wales speak it fluently, a little over 300,000 people in total. When their daughter is home, she quite naturally speaks in one language to her mother and another to her father.

Since moving to Ohio, however, this bilingual family met with difficulties they never expected. While at a school function for her younger daughter, a classmate’s mother overheard Seren speaking to her daughter in Welsh. That girl later spread the word that she wasn’t allowed to play with Seren’s child because she “wasn’t American.” (Every member of Seren’s family is an American-born citizen, although that’s not the point.)

Another time her middle daughter had a friend over. When Seren and her two younger daughters exchanged a few amused Welsh words about the snack being put on the table, the 10-year-old friend accused them of laughing about her and said she wanted to go home.

And waiting in line at a grocery store, Seren and her daughters spoke to each other in Welsh while the woman in front of them was being checked out. The woman said loudly to the cashier, “It’s disgusting the way people come to this country and can’t even learn the language. Makes me sick.”

Seren says she can’t imagine what other people must be enduring to keep their culture and language alive in a time when frightening acts of intolerance are on the rise.

After her daughters pleaded with her, she made a concession. For the first time in 18 years, Seren changed the way she speaks to her daughters. They now keep Welsh to themselves. Speaking only English around others, she says, “is like losing Nain all over again.”

But she hasn’t given up. She is working with the elementary school to put on an annual international fair where the world’s diversity will be celebrated in song, story, art, and food. She’s also planning to invite new friends and neighbors to a traditional Welsh Christmas party at her home this year.

Translation: Adversity brings knowledge and knowledge wisdom
Approximate pronunciation: Ad-vid ah thoog wibod-eyth ah gwibod-eyth doy-theen-eb

The Language We Speak Shapes Us

interesting words in other languages

When I was in elementary school, my cool cousin Arlene attended high school in Germany as a foreign exchange student. The whole concept of leaving one’s home and one’s language was inconceivable to an anxious little kid like me. Arlene’s coolness factor instantly became far vaster.

I saw her when she came home that summer. It was one of those extended family get-togethers where younger kids eat at separate tables, but I did my best to stare at her from afar. It was obvious to me her time in Europe had already made her more sophisticated than our not-well-traveled adult relatives. I’d always wanted to be like her (and like her older sister Laura and our second cousin Linda) but that jig was up. I could never hope to be as confident and poised as she was after her time abroad. I listened carefully when she answered a question about polishing her language skills. I’ve never forgotten what she said.

“You know you’ve got it when you start to dream in another language.”

To speak another language seemed amazing . To dream in it was, to me, unimaginable.

Our thoughts, or at least our perspectives, may very well be shaped by the language(s) we speak. The structure of language matters because of the way it categorizes and labels —shaping our view of reality.

One recent study looked at people who spoke both German and English, as well as those who spoke only one of those languages. Research subjects were shown video clips of people walking towards their cars, cycling towards stores, and so on. Because of the way the separate languages work, German monolingual speakers tended to describe the entirety of the scene, including the person’s action as well as their apparent goal. English monolingual speakers tended to describe only the person’s actions. When it came to people fluent in both languages, Germans who spoke English were goal-focused when tested in their home countries unless they were primed to speak and think in English, in which case they were action-focused. And English speakers who spoke German were more action-focused unless they were primed to speak and think in German, in which case they were more goal-focused. So the language they were using to both think and speak affected they way they described a scene. Okay, maybe that’s just semantics.

But there are enormous benefits to thinking in another language. For example, people who are bilingual appear to make better choices when they think them through in a non-native language. Researcher Boaz Keysar who studies decision bias, writes,  “A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking.”

And there are drawbacks. The language we speak may affect how we think about and see other people. Even people of our own ethnicityResearch shows that Israeli Arabs who speak both Arabic and Hebrew show weaker positive associations with common Arabic names when tested in the Hebrew language. This research says a great deal about culture as well as language.

Our words come not only from our mouths, they come from our worldview. In the Mohawk language, for example, the individual doesn’t stand alone but is in spoken of in relationship to a larger whole.  While in English we’d say “to bury,” in Mohawk it is said as “to wrap his body with the blanket of our Mother Earth.” And when one is ill, it’s not said, “I am sick” but instead, “the sickness has come to me.”

I am sadly monolingual now that my Spanish lessons from middle school have faded from memory. But I am fascinated by language, especially terms for which there are no equivalents in English. We’ve all experienced ideas too large to explain and feelings inexpressible through mere words. Surely every language contains words that convey something crucial yet untranslatable, concepts that are perfectly clear in one tongue yet come out as awkwardly clumped phrases in other languages. They are unique to the geography and culture, yet globally relevant. Here are a few examples.

The Turkish word huzur literally means “presence” but takes on larger connotations having to do with serenity, particularly the inner peace that comes from living in a routine.

The Indonesian word jayus refers to a joke told so poorly that others cannot help but laugh.

The Irish word leaspáin describes those illusory flickering lights that dance before one’s eyes, caused by exhaustion or a knock on the head.

The  Yup’ik word name Ellam Yua is not only the name for the deity considered “person of the universe” but also has to do with one’s spiritual debt to the nature, an outlook of generosity or grace, and awareness of the soul inherent in all beings and things.

The Italian word commuovere often translates as “heartwarming,” but is typically used to refer to a story that moved you to tears.

The Welsh word hiraeth is translated as “homesickness” but means much more. It implies a sense of belonging to the land itself and, when away, an emptiness that can only be filled by returning to Wales. Even then, it’s a yearning that can’t entirely be met, a wistfulness for something that no longer exists.

The Japanese word tsundoku is leaving a book unread after purchasing it.

The Greek word μεράκι (meraki) means enthusiasm and attention to aesthetic outcome when performing a task, however ordinary.

The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee word ondinnonk can refer to the innermost aspect of one’s nature as well as to a soul wish as expressed in dreams.

The Swedish word gökotta means to wake up early specifically to go outside and hear the first birds sing.

The Thai word nam jai translates literally as ‘water heart,’ and refers to the selfless nature of a person who gives without any expectation of anything in return.

The Korean word hwabyung describes the stress-induced illness of repressed anger, particularly related to unfairness that cannot be addressed.

The Russian word poshlost means what is trashy and vulgar but pretends to be profound or beautiful. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment.

The Italian word vendemmia simply translates to “grape harvest,” but means much more — the sense of community and celebration that comes with the harvest.

The Yiddish word trepverter means a witty retort you think of only when it’s too late to use.

The Tamil word kindal is to praise a person so much that the praise turns into a insult or teasing.

The German word torschlusspanik translates as “gate-closing panic” and is used to describe the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.

The Hokkien (Chinese dialect) word lau hong translates as “leaked air” and describes food that’s meant to be crispy or hard, such as crackers, turned soft.

The German word kummerspeck refers to excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.

The Portuguese word saudade refers to an intense, overwhelming longing for something that may never exist, such as an impossibly perfect soulmate.

The Japanese word yūgen names the sense that nature possesses a mysterious beauty that can be seen but not understood.

The Yup’ik term ataucimek umyuarluteng means being of one mind. It refers to the the way people in relationship, whether a couple or a village, flourishes when they function in agreement rather than pushing one’s own purpose ahead of others.