Ramblings on the perfect life, language, culture and what I think about on the bus home on a Wednesday.

Life is a strange old thing. Culture and language are what makes life, we are one species experiencing itself from 8 billion different conscious view points.

It is an amazing thing if someone knows more than one language, it is unbelievable if they know three. Gilles tonight said that English was his fourth. Language is a funny thing – if we believe the French philosophers it defines our complete being. Yet some part of the whole remains missing.

If one is to live the perfect life, how would that be? Would you undertake the human genome project, taking Joe Bloggs, analysing his DNA and saying that was the blue print of humanity? Would you realise that one person does not represent the species and increase the breadth of your search? How would you know that you had isolated all of the possible gene combinations that make up the entire spectrum of human genetic stock without taking a sample of every single human?

The perfect life. A human life is the summation of our actions, which are made up of our interactions with our physical surroundings. Typically in any study of human behaviour traits have been sought on either a macro or an individual level. Traits are us, they are our personalities, our responses to situations, our unconscious actions, our us. A character trait in one person could be called a dysfunction in another, be dominant in a third and recessive in a fourth. A fifth might not even have it at all. But what is a trait? Is it too simplistic to say that ‘men are from Mars so therefore less emotional but better at spatial awareness’. Stereotypes are dangerous ‘but they represent fundamental generalised truths’ Is this true? How do we define that these traits exist. We can speak the words in language but has language predetermined our belief in them.

Language is a funny thing. Apparently Inuits have a thousand words for snow, so therefore are able to consciously experience a different relationship with snow then those without names for it. Also, Inuits add their adjectives to their nouns, so when they say icy snow they say icysnow. This isn’t a separate word, only a different grammar. I believe that precise linguistic representations of thought will be inaccessible without a thorough understanding of the language that created them -the concept of mana in Maori comes to mind. That said, the majority of concepts can either be conveyed in any language so long as that language is flexible enough to accept new concepts. Differences can be sorted via dialogue and understanding.

I am impressed when someone knows multiple languages, although I then must ask why they know so many? The majoriy of people I have met so far have a historical reason for knowing a language other than their native one. The remaider of people who choose to learn a language to proficiency for the sake of it are few and far between. I guess I am saying – not to denigrate anyone who knows multiple languages or preach anglo-saxon linguistic superiority – that learning another language is a pointless exercise from the point of view of understanding all cultures. If one has an interest in a particular culture, then by all means learn that language. If one grew up in a place where it was necessary to learn then by all means. If one likes to travel and is enthralled in knowing enough to get by then go ahead. If one knows six languages already and learning the seventh is like relearning to ride a bike it would be a shame not to.

If one wants to learn the best about as many other different points of view, then understanding the concepts that underlie the language is more important than being able to understand how to say thank you and catch the next train. This may sound belittling, but I have found that I have best experienced other cultures through someone who has a throurough grasp of English already. If I only have a rudimentary grasp of their language then I don’t really understand what is going on, the idiosyncrasies that make up their personalities. In the same way that culturally eating around the world is not a true understanding of the other experience (although gustatory experience is right up there with sense of smell), language lip service is also incomplete.

Why am I writing this? Well, I am eternally on the quest for complete understanding and the perfect life ;) But on a more down to earth note, cultural understanding doesn’t come from a lack of linguistic understanding. Rather it is a part (albeit a large one). More importantly cultural understanding is a willingness to understand other cultures [isn't that a tautology?]. So a way to be exposed to other ways to understand the perfect way to live life is to be open to understanding other cultures in whatever form that takes.


  1. vinnie

    hi franny sounds like you are taking on the world
    hope you come back one day miss you lots
    ps just read that posting way over my head as always :)

    128:277 1:13, Mar 09 2008

  2. mummybot

    Hey bro! I am coming back for a holiday in June/July so will see you soon! I miss you guys too – it has been a long time!

    128:279 6:55, Mar 09 2008

  3. Marieke

    From my own experience, I believe that language carries the torch for a culture, it’s fundamental – way more than indulgence.

    I’m a first generation Kiwi, and, through circumstance, have just rudimentary Dutch-speaking abilities. You’re half Dutch in your ancestry, yet have virtually none of the language and, I would suggest, little more of the culture. Within 50 years the language, and with it, the culture, have been all but lost from your immediate whanau.

    Look at Maori and the effort put into Kohanga Reo. They recognise that the language IS the culture – without language, there is no Maori rennaissance, no way of communicating the values, the stories, the essence of ‘Maoriness’.

    Which all means that I have to disagree with you. Learning other languages is more than indulgence or pointless – language is the window to a culture. You can get a view from talking with a native speaker who has learnt English, and can therefore give you his/her perspective, but to understand it at a wider perspective, I believe you have to experience it for yourself. Imagine if you weren’t a native English speaker, and the only English-speaking Kiwi you ever conversed with was a neo-con who didn’t believe in human-induced climate change, Maori rights, social welfare, free education…Your view of our culture and country would be far from rounded.

    There was a fascinating piece on Nat Radio a couple of weeks ago about mathematics, and the language different cultures have built up around it. There are people (I can’t remember which country) who have no numbers – they can’t sequence any number greater than five, and have no concept of 1, 2, 3… Anything greater is ‘several’. How could you ‘get’ that without understanding their language, and through this their culture?

    128:307 0:35, May 09 2008

Post a comment