Speaking of Language

If culture is the prism through which we view the world, language is our attempt to order that world and give it meaning. At the U of M, nearly 40 language options provide a wealth of cultural opportunity.
by Judy Woodward

It's your first visit to the home of your new Iranian acquaintance and you can't wait to try some of that terrific rose-water-infused cuisine you've heard about. Politely, your host offers you something to eat. You've been studying your Persian dictionary for just this moment, and you're ready. “Wow, thanks", you say in Farsi, smiling broadly in the interests of international understanding. “I'm starving!"

Congratulations. You've just revealed yourself to be a social barbarian, completely unversed in the elaborate rituals of taarof, the Persian social code that governs virtually every aspect of behavior in the highly nuanced world of Iranian hospitality.

“A different language is not just another vocabulary; it's a different vision of life," says Mahmoud Sadrai, instructor of Persian and linguistics. As a teacher of Persian, Sadrai believes that his job is to teach the culture as well as the vocabulary.

Persian is just one of the nearly 40 languages taught at the University of Minnesota. Every one of them holds the promise of introducing a new world and a fresh perspective on life, but only if the learner understands one critical point: When it comes to learning a language, your grasp of grammar may be impressive, your vocabulary large, and your accent native-like, but, if you don't understand cultural practices like taarof, you haven't learned the subject.

Sadrai defines taarof as an elaborate “system of politeness strategies." He explains the social misstep involved in accepting food too quickly. “In Persian culture, you are obligated to offer food," he says, but it's also rude to accept too quickly. “You can't accept until the third offer," he says. A brash American might note inwardly at that point that the food is getting cold, but he would be missing the point. Sadrai says, “Even though you know your position [in the social hierarchy] you must go through the ritual of self-effacement. Part of taarof is saving face, and allowing others to save face."

An all-encompassing system that covers every social encounter, taarof explains why, for example, it might take an hour to bid your Iranian host a polite farewell. Noting that taarof helps define and enforce social hierarchies, Sadrai says, “It's a way of giving deference, but the politeness need not be sincere."

Widening the lens

There are all kinds of reasons to learn a language, says Elaine Tarone, director of the University's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA). Studies show, for example, that children in language immersion programs have greater cognitive flexibility and are more creative.

She also believes, though, that as Americans, we simply shortchange ourselves if we cling to our monolingual culture. “We have a limited view of being human if we see things through only one cultural lens," says Tarone, a Distinguished University Teaching Professor of Second Language Studies. “We Americans value freedom, yet we [risk] locking ourselves into one way of seeing the world."

Beyond mastering grammar and vocabulary, real communication depends on learning what she calls the “pragmatics" of a language. “As you become more proficient in a language, the knowledge of the culture becomes more important," Tarone says. “In fact, the two are so interrelated that you can't assess proficiency without talking about what [students] know about culture."

Say, for example, you need to apologize for a minor social blunder. To do that, a student has to understand not just words and sentence structure, but also the cultural nuances and the social standing of those who may have been offended. “You have to suit the language of apology to the degree of offense . . . [and] to use the language at that advanced level, you need to know the culture," she says.

But acquiring a level of proficiency that ensures cultural as well as linguistic competence is no easy matter. Tarone points out that there are times when a student's native culture can consciously or unconsciously sabotage the learning process. Take the delicate matter of what Western society defines as plagiarism. American students are raised to be individualists, accustomed from their earliest school days to reformulate and synthesize assigned reading “in their own words."

Not so for students from some Asian cultures, says Tarone. “They may come from a culture where the learning model is to memorize from the experts," she explains. “They say, ‘I am not worthy to change this expert's words.'" For these students, putting something in their own words is not the sign of healthy engagement with the subject matter, but the mark of a presumptuous usurpation of scholarly authority.

Such difficulties are not confined to Asian students striving to master English. Tomoko Hoogenboom, who was a lecturer and lead teacher in the U's Japanese Program in Asian Languages and Literatures last year, knows her American students have extra difficulty mastering the elaborate forms of keigo, the Japanese system of honorifics used to establish formal social relationships. “In Japanese culture," she says, “there are so many ways of politeness. You need to find out where you belong."

Every public encounter in Japanese involves establishing oneself as a member of an in-group or an out-group, says Hoogenboom, and using specific language prescribed for each role. She explains that so apparently simple an exchange as entering an office and asking to speak to the boss can involve an exhausting linguistic calculus for those not comfortable in the intricacies of keigo.

The person who enters the office makes it clear that he or she is a member of the “out-group" by referring to the boss with special honorific forms. The staffer to whom the question is addressed must underscore his or her own “in-group" status by referring to the boss in what Hoogenboom calls “extra-modest" language.

Add to this ritual the fact that there are separate language forms reserved for men and women, and it's no wonder that Hoogenboom has her teaching work cut out for her. To help her students, she says, “We create role-playing situations. Each student gets a status card." When the cards are reshuffled and the student gets a new one, “[he or she] needs to change the style of speaking." Hoogenboom says, “Most of my students are fascinated by the differences from American culture."

But that doesn't mean they find them easy to understand. Tarone and her colleague Noriko Ishihara have written about the discomfort that some American students feel when they are expected to use keigo to superiors. “It's difficult for Americans to do this," Tarone says, citing an American student who remarked that he couldn't use honorifics until the recipient “had earned his respect."

Such a student may master the grammar and vocabulary of Japanese, but hasn't really learned to communicate in the language. Says Hoogenboom, “A student who wants to be included in Japanese society needs to acquire that skill. If a person says, ‘I won't use those honorifics,' other Japanese won't feel comfortable with him."

Cultural discomfort can also result when Arabic and American social codes conflict, says Hisham Khalek, director of the Arabic Instruction Program in the Department of African-American and African Studies. Khalek, who has just published a new Arabic curriculum, Exploring Arabic, notes that Arabic attitudes toward social discourse go back to nomadic Bedouin life. “A visitor to the tribe was received for three days before he was asked his purpose," he says. By conducting general conversation with the stranger, tribesmen could assess character and behavior before the purpose of the visit was raised.

According to Khalek, that leisurely approach still prevails in Arabic business circles, to the frequent incomprehension of straight-to-the-point Americans: “If you have only an hour for lunch with an Arab businessman, the first 45 minutes will have nothing to do with business."

Some scholars contend that language not only provides the vehicle through which we engage the world but also actually shapes the thoughts we are able to express, either completely or absolutely. That idea, known to linguists as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, gives rise to some fascinating speculations. Can an English speaker appreciate the finer points of hierarchical courtesy, limited as we are by a language that has only one way to say “you"? Is a bean- counter's perspective possible for speakers of the Brazilian Indian language Pirahã, which counts “one, two, many"? In other words, does language drive culture, or is it the other way around? What is the essential relationship between language and culture?

“At core," Sadrai says, “we develop language to comprehend our experiences and to deal with the world. We experience the world through our senses but we give it meaning through language."

Artifact vs. Organic

A scholar who takes a somewhat different view is associate professor of English David Treuer, a McKnight Land-Grant professor, novelist, and translator of texts from his native Ojibwe.

“I'm leery of facile descriptions of how cultures work," Treuer says. “Languages are perfectly capable of expressing what they need to." He's conscious of the tenuous existence of Indian languages like Ojibwe, which is losing native speakers as the inevitable passage of time combines with the powerful lure of American popular culture.

“I work against the idea of seeing Ojibwe as an ancient language," says Treuer. “That shoves it into a museum intellectually. I think of it as vibrant, important, and capable of communicating everything. [But] Ojibwe is in danger of dying out. When people talk about culture in regard to a dying language [they're saying] ‘Language is a diorama that shows us how life was.'"

He believes that to emphasize Ojibwe's linguistic singularities after the model of Sapir-Whorf is to condemn it to the fate of a self-consciously “ancient" tongue, automatically disqualified from expressing the complexities and concerns of modern life. And that's a crucial concern, because maintaining the vitality of the Ojibwe language is critical to the entire culture, Treuer says.

“There are lots of things in a culture," he says. “Kinship, ceremony, and history, but language is the most important. In the Ojibwe context, it links and connects all those other things together. Language provides a sense of solidarity."

Still, Treuer finds himself mildly impatient with the whole notion of capturing the essence of a culture in any neat formulation.

“As a novelist, I'm much more interested in nuance than in general meaning," he says. As a translator, he believes his job is to “communicate the particularities of a certain text or speech . . . . Translation from Ojibwe is not a matter of translating cultural essence. Cultures are anti-essential. A text is fixed. It stops moving. Cultures are complicated, varied—and always in flux."

CLA and its languages
So just how broad-based are the languages offered under the CLA umbrella? Here's an overview. All figures are for the academic year 2007–08, unless otherwise specified, and do not include English language offerings.

  • Number of languages offered at the University of Minnesota: 36 plus American Sign Language
  • Number of language courses offered by CLA: Approximately 400
  • Most popular language taught: Spanish
  • Less commonly studied hidden gems among languages offered: Ojibway, Persian, Icelandic, and Swahili
  • Number of languages taught at the U of M that have no or few living native speakers:
    7, Classical Greek and Latin, Old Norse, Coptic, Akkadian, Sumerian and Sanskrit
  • Number of students who took a language course last year: 9,738
  • Percentage of all bachelor's degrees awarded by the U that are in languages and literatures: 3.8%
  • Number of students enrolled in an English-as-a-second-language course last year: 172
  • Number of CLA students who study abroad: 827 (2004–­2005 academic year)
  • Number of foreign languages in which the CLA Language Center offers satellite television programming:
    10, including Survivor in French, aerobics in Arabic, and Bollywood films in Hindi

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on February 13, 2009 10:33 AM.

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