Monday, March 19, 2007

The power of language

Which main feature distinguishes humans from other advanced animals? Some would say the ability to make fire, some perhaps that we know how to use tools, others yet that humans might have some kind of “souls” which animals wouldn’t.

I would say – language; the ability to speak and communicate.

Just a few days ago, our two-year-old started to use a new expression from his quickly growing Portuguese vocabulary: “não pode”. Consider the power of those few words: “You may not”. And consider the difficulty if you couldn’t utter or understand them. Of course, little children have other ways of communication to express their will, but before they start talking it’s on a pretty basic level (after all, “uääääää” can mean a million things, sometimes confusing even the most ambitious of parents).

Seeing my little boy’s language skill develop as rapidly as it does makes me almost speechless (no pun intended). As we are both learning Portuguese for the moment, it is interesting to compare our abilities. And while it takes at least five repetitions for me to recall a new word in Portuguese, he will remember immediately. What is more; he somehow manages to learn THREE languages at one time. Depending on who is talking to him, he understands and uses either Portuguese/Kriulo (with Cape Verdeans), Finnish (with his mother) or Swedish (with me). Not that he realizes that it is in fact three languages – he simply adapts to the circumstance that different people call things differently. Sometimes he will even say the same thing in all three languages just to make sure that he is understood.

The desire to learn a language is surely one of the most powerful driving forces we have as human beings. According to the Harvard professor Steven Pinker, language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution like web-spinning in spiders or sonar in bats. In several books, he has convincingly explained how evolution has led to our brains being genetically pre-programmed, just waiting to be filled with grammar and vocabulary at a very early stage in life.

And it makes sense, since language is an absolute precondition for our species to live and prosper on this planet. For one thing, it is by far the most efficient way to get something you want. If you cannot communicate what you want, chances are quite slim that you will get it. If you can’t tell people off, there is a big risk that they won’t stop. Therefore, children who learn languages early on will have an enormous payoff, even affecting their chances of survival. And the more languages we pick up as children, the better linguists we become as adults.

We can all relate to the lack of language skills, being unable to express ourselves properly or to understand what people are saying. It can be very frustrating. A good example of this was when our new car broke down in Cape Verde some months ago (see previous blog “My relationship with Toyota”). The local Toyota representative refused to accept the warranty, and it took a lot of time and effort to resolve the issue. I am convinced that this was mainly due to the fact that I didn’t speak Portuguese or Kriolu very well. With only basic knowledge of a language, it is almost impossible to explain and negotiate a case, put forward demands and claim rights. Language means power.

As another example, I have been working many years as an environmental negotiator, and one of the first things I realized was how important it was to use the diplomatic language. Regardless which language-base you use (English was mine), there is a set of fairly strict rules to apply – most of them unwritten – based on courtesy, formality and repetition. This skill is absolutely necessary in order to build agreements between constituencies with different cultures, traditions and priorities, since it creates trust and minimizes fear and disbelief. Diplomats who mastered this language got a lot of things done, whereas those who didn’t failed miserably. Again, language equals power.

But language is not only necessary to get what we want. I would claim that without a language, we would hardly know or understand anything. Imagine life without words and sentences. Try to form a concrete thought without a language. You can’t. And even if you could, what good would it be if you couldn’t share and communicate it with anyone? Without language, the world would be a complete blur of confusing and inexplicable impressions, without any possibility to differentiate or understand them. Probably it would be a very scary place. Understanding is about distinguishing and identifying, which simply can’t be done in any detail without a language.

Consider that we would have had no language at all. I don’t think we can even start to imagine what our lives would look like. A couple of weeks ago we could read in the papers about a woman who spent 19 years completely alone in a remote forest in Cambodia. What I found most intriguing about this story was that she spoke no language at all, and I can’t help wondering what this meant to her ability to understand herself and the surrounding world. As could be expected, the reports describe the woman as generally confused and terrified. Her comprehension will no doubt increase considerably however, if and when she learns a language.

Putting all of this into a Cape Verdean perspective, I realize two things.

First, the importance of preserving and developing the local language, Kriulo, as a corner stone of Cape Verdean culture and national identity. Optimally, Kriulo should be developed and become the formal language, to be used also in Cape Verdean law, governmental decisions etc.

Secondly, it seems to be a good idea to encourage more Cape Verdeans to learn other foreign languages (besides Portuguese). Tourists and investors alike, most of them will inevitably feel more comfortable in a country where they can communicate more easily.

Schools apparently have an important role in teaching 3rd and 4th languages. But I am also told that over half of Cape Verde’s population live abroad; many of them must necessarily speak English or French. Perhaps I am too bold, but what if all exile Cape Verdeans made a commitment to teach their foreign language to family and friends when they come home for visits, or that they sponsor foreign language classes in Cape Verde so that the rest of the family can learn their new language while they are away? I would think that this be one of the most efficient, cheapest and quickest ways to boost tourism and economic development in Cape Verde.

I, for my part, have started to give some simple English lessons to our guard, so that one day he might find a better job, perhaps as a guide. It’s a small step, but it’s something. Moreover, I will make an effort to learn kriolu, just like my son, so as to better understand the Cape Verdean culture – as well as my son! Kre papia kriolu...

1 comment:

Hulan Danner said...

Hello, this is Hulan in Sweden. I have read your paper on the power of language and it was eye opening for me as an American liveing in Sweden. I wish I would have applied myself more in the bigining to learning another language. People would say, you will do OK, everyone speaks english. It was easy and I do OK, but there are times when I don't always know what Jeremy an Hannah are talking about with their friends. I do understand if I listen but with not developing swedish listening skills and not haveing the drive to learn learn the language and just being OK with doing OK I have done myself and my family a disservice. Thank you for what you wrote and for opening my eyes!