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What You Didn’t Know about Language Barriers | Roxanne Pomerantz | TEDxBGU


Translator: Alina Siluyanova
Reviewer: Denise RQ How many of you
can speak more than one language? Now, keep your hands up
if you can speak more than two. And how about three? Very impressive! (Applause) But did you know that you actually
could have easily learned 25 languages? It’s true. This is a natural human phenomenon that any normal child
born anywhere in the world is capable of learning any language
that he or she is exposed to. And did you know that the languages that your child is exposed to
before the age of 7, which is also known
as the critical age period, are the only languages that he or she
will be exposed to later in life? Leonard Bloomfield said
that “acquisition of a language is doubtless
the greatest intellectual feat that anyone of us
is ever required to perform.” So, I asked myself and some others
in the overseas student program here: why do we learn languages? At first, we all learn language
because we have to. As humans, we’re designed
to learn language just like we’re designed to walk. There is simply no preventing it. But then, there are some of us
who actually do it for fun. We go through the struggle, we put in the effort,
feeling wrong all the time, but we love it
because the rewards are so great. It’s awesome to speak another language, to carry it with you everywhere you go; to travel and communicate
with people in their native language makes conversations
so much more personal, and you actually
get to enjoy more out of life because it gives you
the opportunity to understand more music, and movies,
and games from around the world. So I want to ask you another question, and I want you all to think about this: if we started taking advantage of the amazing ability
that children have to learn languages and the plethora
of free language learning tools we have in our devices today, could we, by reducing language barriers,
reduce other barriers in society? Which begs me to ask another question: what exactly are language barriers and what do they do? I know what some of you are thinking: you’re at the dinner table, and you’re between
your mother, who is Russian, and your beautiful American girlfriend, and you’re having a moment of realization that you’ve just hired
yourself out as a translator. So, you have to spend the whole evening hearing everything 3 times, and even though you thought
that you could speak English and Russian perfectly, you’re starting to feel
confused and frustrated, and you’re desperate
for a couple of minutes of alone time just to think in whatever language
you choose to think in. But there is a lot more to
language barriers that I want you to know. Have you ever heard
of linguistic relativity? Linguistic relativity is the field which asks questions on the relations between language, perception, and thought. The core theory is called
the deterministic theory, it is scientifically proven,
and it states that the language you speak shapes the way you think
and influences your behavior. The fathers of linguistic relativity,
Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir, state that if a word
doesn’t exist in your language, you won’t know
the concept [behind the word]. Now, I think that those guys
can be a little extreme in their theories. I think rather that if a word
doesn’t exist in your language, you are a lot less likely
to identify with that concept. One of my friends here, in Israel,
a native German speaker, told me a story once
of how the English language changed the way
that she thought about love. She told me she still remembers
the first time she heard the term “falling in love”, and that she was shocked
at the use of the language because she had never thought
of being in love as something that happened
suddenly and dramatically, and she pictured someone actually falling, and she could feel that,
and then she knew that someday she will experience “falling” in love
and not just “being” in love. Also, in body language we find
interesting differences among languages. In Hebrew this means “waits”. However, this is a great insult in Italy, and I wanted you all to know that. (Laughter) And the most obvious
differences in languages that are influencing our thoughts
and behaviors is in vocabulary. One scientific experiment
in linguistic relativity showed how gender association
impacts people’s perception. This study used the word “key”, which is in German a masculine word, and in Spanish it’s feminine. So, subjects were asked
to come up with words to describe a key. And the German speakers
used words such as “heavy”, “durable”, “strong”, “useful”, “metal”, but the Spanish speakers
chose words such as “golden”, “lovely”, “little”, “delicate” and “shiny”
to describe the same word — “key”. Another interesting difference
we find among languages is in the perception of correctness. I read in the study
by John Myhill at University of Haifa that correctness in present day English
and most European languages is based on prestige. So, the development of these languages has actually followed the trends
of its most elite speakers. But other languages perceive
correctness in a much different way. Languages such as Arabic,
and Hebrew, and Icelandic are based on textual references. So, if a word appears in a text–
in Arabic, which is based on the Koran, and Hebrew is based on The Mishneh Torah if a word or grammar
appears in this text, it is correct, and if it doesn’t, it is not correct. For these languages there is no connection between correctness and prestige. And there are
many, many words in languages that don’t appear anywhere else
such as “stam” [סטם] in Hebrew, which can be translated into English
as “just kidding”, but not really — it is a unique word to let someone know
you’re not being serious. And “khalomot paz” [חלומות פז]
is how you say “sweet dreams” in Hebrew, but actually translates directly
as “golden dreams”. And there is a word in German
that I love called “Fernweh”, which dictionaries
translate as “itchy feet”, and it is the opposite of “homesick”. It describes the feeling
that you need to travel. So, when my German friend
taught me this word, I thought: “Wow! How I wish that this word
existed in my language!” And I wondered
that if we used such a word, how my experience of feeling
like the only one in my family with a strong desire to see the world
may have been different. So, a few weeks ago, after I auditioned
to be up here on the TEDx stage, I reached out to my psychology
professor back in New York and asked him what he thought
about linguistic relativity. And what he says
explains the story of my friend and, in terms of psychology and memory, what happened when she learned
a new term about love. He said: “It is the breadth
of our language, not our vast experiences, which help color our lives. That is, in memory, the language labels that we assign
events and experiences shape, indeed; limit the way that we can remember them.” For example, if the only positive
emotion word we knew was “happy”, all positive memories
are labeled as “happy memories”. And if they all fit
in that “happy” bucket together, then their shared features,
which make them labeled as “happy”, will be reinforced and at times amplified
at the expense of their differences to allow for better access. This is because your mind categorizes
everything with language labels, so that it can reach for your memories
as quickly as possible. And everything that you say and do, every decision you make,
every conversation that you have, is just a consequence
of some memories, right? So, in other words, your ability,
overall, to access your memories is actually directly related to your breadth
and knowledge of vocabulary. Because our languages
are constantly changing, language barriers
are just growing bigger and bigger. So, what do you think everyone? If we started to take advantage of children’s amazing ability
to learn languages and the plethora of free tools
that we have to learn languages today, could we, by reducing language barriers,
reduce other barriers in society? The answer to me is crystal clear. By emphasizing foreign language
studying in your community, you are seizing an opportunity
to reverse the creation of gaps in the way that we think and behave. There are so many issues in society today that are thought-based, like racism,
and hate crimes, and bullying. So, by increasing
the knowledge of language, we can overcome these differences; also, by having more multilingual
programs for children, of course, because it’s that critical
age period before age 7, where we have this opportunity. So, one such program exists in Jaffa
called the Orchard of Abraham’s Children. It was founded by a Palestinian man
an a Jewish woman, who are married. And they’ve established 3 kindergartens
that teach in both Arabic and Hebrew, and celebrate both cultures’ holidays. So, programs, like this one,
are using bilingual education to promote peace and co-existence
in a humanitarian, non-political way. And it is so effective, because our languages
are a huge part of our identity. Being born to reformed Jewish parents, gave me really early exposure
to the Hebrew language, and if it wasn’t
for that early, early exposure, I am sure I wouldn’t be here,
in Israel, studying linguistics, or giving this talk to you about the power of being able to identify
with more than one language. Now, I want to leave you
with this quote by Helen Keller, who was an American author,
a political activist, and the first deaf-blind person ever
to receive the Bachelor of Arts degree: “Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow, the mystery
of language was revealed to me. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth
to a new thought.” Thank you. (Applause)

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