Monday, March 06, 2006

Language Study

Raise your hands if you’ve heard this one before.

A person who speaks three languages is…trilingual
A person who speaks two languages is…bilingual.
A person who speaks only one language is…AMERICAN!

For structuralist, anthropologists who look for the patterns of structure when studying culture, there is no more important organized pattern in society than that of language. Language is the ordering of the mind. How one sees their world is determined by how they think. The vocabulary of a person’s culture reflects not only their worldview but also their values. Example: The Eskimo’s have hundreds of words for “snow” because the white stuff is an integral part of their being. The Pokot, the tribe I worked with in Kenya, has no words for snow as it is not a part of their world. They do have, however, hundreds of cattle word terms. Pastoralists need these words not only to communicate but to express value.

I tell students to learn language well when entering another country. To know the worldview of others is to know the heart of who they are and that is reflected in culture.

I also tell my class to learn the language in which they are going to work. If one has targeted the Malinke of Mali, don’t waste your time on learning French. Though it is the official language of the country, unless you will be working among the elite of Bamako, learn the language of the common man. Most Malinke don’t know French, so learn Bambara, which is the trade language.

As a consultant and teacher living in southeast Asia, I have made a conscious choice to work only with those who know English. This is not a small group, in fact there are more English speakers here than in the U.S. and the U.K. combined (granted many of them do not speak it fluently, but they are still not the people I work with on a daily basis). My focus are on the future leaders of the country, those who will influence every segment of society. At my age to concentrate on learning another language I will never teach in is a waste of my time and energy and not strategic. As, I have frequently quoted, “Good strategy ends up being defeated by bad management.” This is true of time management as well. Like everyone, I cannot do everything that needs to be done, so I concentrate on those things I can do and don’t waste time doing things that’s not the best use of my time or talent.

Because I am bilingual I know how difficult learning language can be. Learning language is essential and should command one’s full attention. To avoid wasting time, learn what you need know, use what you learn, but learn only the language that you can effectively use.


AfricaBleu said...


Okay, now THAT is out of the way...
I have always been glad that I learned enough Swahili to know what you and Mom were trying to say "behind" my back.

Sawa sawa.

sara said...

We learned today that very thing today that language is entertwined with culture and the better the you know it, the more accepted you are. Someone said "language is deep, heart to heart communion.
I like that!