Languages, living and learning

I have been fortunate in my life. I have been able to study and appreciate various languages other than English. It was the only language I spoke until I was a young adult. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. My father grew up speaking both Norwegian and English as his “first languages.” Later, in World War I, in France, he learned enough French to be able to carry on a conversation with local speakers of French. My mother, although Irish, lived in a German community and grew up speaking German. Oftentimes I heard her talking with our neighbors in German. I grew up at least hearing several languages.


For those who accept the idea of human evolution, our great turning point came with the ability to communicate quickly, easily and accurately through a spoken language. All languages have limitations. Most people distinguish just the sounds used in their spoken language, perhaps 40 to 50 sounds. If they hear someone speaking another language with different sounds they tend to think it is just “jibberish,” and doesn’t make any sense. Yet in some languages the difference between a sound made on a higher or lower tone or pitch, makes all the difference in the world.

We tend to think that sound or “words” have to be put together in a certain order to make sense. Yet there are many different ways to do that in other languages.

There are words that are really abstractions. That is, we try to group things and come up with a word to cover all the similarities, and leave behind all the differences. For example, as I look out my window, I don’t really see “spruce” and “hemlock.” What I see are many individual, unique trees. Words also have “connotations.” That is they carry a certain “feeling” or evaluation of things or others when they are used. In English, we have a term or word “bastard.” In old English, it simply meant the child of a man and woman who were not legally married. In the middle ages, it was just an accepted designation. Today if I call someone a “bastard” it carries with it a much different feeling.

There are writing systems for many languages. They are ways that people agree upon to record the real, spoken language. We use an “alpha-bet” which comes from the first two characters in written Greek... alpha and beta. Many of us in the Western world tradition feel that languages have to have a “spelling system,” an alphabet. In English we use about 48 different, specific sounds, but our alphabet only has 26 characters, so we get “diphthongs” and things like that. The Chinese writing system is based on characters or symbols that express an idea or concept — it is not “spelling.” In China, although many different forms of speech are used, the people can all look at the same characters and know the ideas they express.

In Europe, and now in Asia, it is considered “normal” for any educated person to be able to think and speak in more than one language. Learning a second, third or fifth language — Tlingit, Athabascan, Yupiq, Chinese, Spanish or Arabic — can be an exciting experience even later in life. We learn to “see things in a different way.”

If we live in a world where we consider our form of English to be the only acceptable language, we limit our view of the real world to just one way of seeing or thinking. It is like having a computer with a vast ability, limited to using just one program for everything.

• Olson, of Auke Bay, is a professor of anthropology (emeritus) for the University of

Alaska Southeast.


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