I realized this week that my first two opinion pieces this term were both about movies. I love watching movies very much, and some are quite thought provoking, but I know there are people out there who don’t like them, or like them but don’t have the time or patience for them, so this week I thought we could change tunes.
Let’s talk about languages instead. This is a topic that is quite close to films, since it’s all about expression, and the way that you experience a movie is very closely related to whether or not you are watching it in a language that is foreign to you. In fact, this is because a movie is also a form of expression, much like architecture or writing (the latter being a more direct method). All forms of expression have a language. These vary considerably; the language of drawing is lines (or blots, or dots…art is a very progressive field). The language of architecture can also be lines, or construction materials. An example is brick. She who can make a brick look purposeful and aesthetic in a wall full of other, identical bricks is making architecture.
Most fields, though, utilize words: written, spoken or sung. This means of expression is what first comes to mind when we think “language,” so there is always greater emphasis on it. How else would you ask for a cup of tea at Coffee Break? How else could you say “hi” to your friends, or prevent someone from bumping into you? Well, I suppose you could grunt and point, but that wouldn’t be too polite. Most of us here express ourselves in Turkish, or try to. But what about other languages? What about English, Portuguese or Latin? We don’t stop to consider these tongues in our daily lives; amid the pace of modern life, language is only a tool, and not a thing of value in itself.
I love learning new languages. More correctly, whatever I hear, I want to learn. In the words of the wise, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I’m not fluent in any foreign language other than English, but I’ve started learning a few more, and it’s amazing to see how much difference in expression a language can provide, even in the first few months. There are the obvious differences in the sounds, sure, but what you say also changes. In French and Italian, for example, you don’t say, “I am hungry”; you say, “I have hunger.” This is a fairly simple example of how languages can change expression. An example on a much larger scale would be ancient languages. You can’t speak Latin: you can learn the language, form sentences and compose essays, but you can’t actually go up to someone who speaks Latin and have a full conversation, because what you can talk about is so limited. So many things that are part of our daily topics of conversation are inventions of the last century or two, and Latin and ancient Greek were halted in the Middle Ages. Of course, if you ask my instructor, even this phase of the language had no value, because it was a rediscovered, self-learned and therefore warped Latin. Unfortunately, classical Latin does not have words for computer, telephone, sandwich or tea. That is why it’s called a “dead” language: it’s not progressing anymore. Still, it’s rather a sad word to assign to the mode of communication that dominated the ancient world through the rule of the Roman Empire.
A language shouldn’t die, it should adapt. That is why different languages are so changeable in what they say. They adapt to the culture they are used in, they meet the specific needs that arise. If there is an abundance of something in a geography, there will probably be an abundance of names or words for it. There is that famous case, for example, of how Eskimos have 20-plus different names for snow. I don’t know if this is true (I don’t speak the language, nor have I met anyone who does, unfortunately), but it certainly illustrates the point. You can tell a lot about a people by the language they speak. Alternately, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
Using a foreign language is, of course, difficult. Being in a school that teaches in what is at least a second tongue for most students (even the ones on exchange from abroad), I’m guessing we all know this. Mostly, the student body of this school functions very well in English, and would do better than all right abroad. I’m also guessing, however, that deep down we all know that no matter how well you learn any foreign language, it will never feel the same as your mother tongue, the language of your heart. Its words are those you associate with emotions, with instincts, with concepts of life, because they are what you first learned to call them. When you learn a new language, you only learn other words to associate with those words. But it’s still valuable to “get inside the head” of a speaker of this language and make it your own as much as possible. It may not be your mother tongue, but it is a new world of possibilities and knowledge. “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow,” so the more languages we learn, and the more of a language we learn, the more we think. (Not to mention being able to show off to people when you know a phrase in another language, which, obviously, is my only goal.)
Whatever language you choose (or don’t choose) to learn, there is something I’m asking everyone to remember: a warm smile is the universal language of kindness. By smiling at me, or anyone, on the bus instead of irritably looking away after accidental eye contact, you can change my day. I’m just saying.