Thinking what you can say.

Ward Keeler begins the introduction to his wonderful book Javanese: A Cultural Approach thus:

Many language texts open with Monsieur John Smith of Dayton, Ohio, getting off the plane in Paris, France and wanting to find a hotel room. They attempt, that is, to teach a person how to say in a foreign language the things he would normally say in his native one. But a critical part of learning a language is to learn not to want or need to say what one says in English, but rather to learn to say what people say in the culture of the language one is learning.

Quite sadly, many people attempting to learn a foreign language (and even more sadly, not a few people attempting to teach it) are ignorant of this. Yet this is what separates a language tourist from a true learner.

It is, of course, all the more important, if the cultures and languages concerned are as far from each other as Javanese and English, but even in case of English and Polish (or, dare I say, Polish and Russian) differences of this kind are not negligible.

But let’s stay with the “obscure” languages for a while. The less-commonly learnt ones, the minority ones, the so-called ‘ancestral heritage’ ones. A good proportion of people learning them, I find, are either teenage language geeks fascinated by weirdness, or people of all ages trying to reconnect with their ancestors’ past in search of… I don’t know, spirituality? their place in life?

Now, the issue is, such people have, I noticed, the admittedly well-justifiable tendency of wanting to talk about their daily commutes, IRC-chats, office assignments and whatever else constitutes their day-to-day life in their new fancy language. Then sometimes they end up surprised and disappointed that they really can’t do that without resorting to English which oftentimes is the default high-tech modern stuff language for linguistic community X, which uses the language X mainly to talk about intimate feelings, the ancestral belief system, the foodstuffs, the plants and the like.

Now, my question is whether trying to move forward and speak in Mohawk about computers, lolcats and Facebook, but not about  the twenty kinds of acorns they have (or not) different words nor about the longhouse religion is an act of cultural appropriation? Like, picking up the cool bits and stuffing them with palatable, familiar content? Not that I myself have a definite answer to that, I’m just inclined towards one way of thinking of it.

I remember being politely turned down by a certain Native American I contacted in hope of learning their language in my early internet days. I didn’t understand them then, but I (sort of) do now.

Anyway, let’s end this with another quote, or actually a paraphrase. Written by someone teaching another Native American language, which he spoke natively:

We always ask questions “how to say this-and-that in X” and think it’s very important to have it answered and that not being able to say this-and-that limits us. But what’s really important is  whether we can think about all the things you can say in X. Not being able to do so is the real limitation.

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