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Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything

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Language Barriers and World Peace!

December 16th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 12 Comments

Europe typically seems quite open-minded and accepting of diverse cultures. There are so many reasons why this may be, from the second world war, to the philosophers they’ve had, to the worldly experience of being colonialists (and possibly learning the problems with it and suffering reverse colonisation). But I’m no historian, so I will refrain from speculating on the impact of the second world war and post-modern philosophy, and instead trot out my own uninformed and unsupported theory: there are so many different languages and cultures, teaching them the trickiness of translating from one culture or language to another.

There are so many things wrong with this theory, but if I point them all out now, I’ll be going against my stated purpose of trotting out my theory. So bear with me… keep in mind I’m talking rubbish, and do point out all the problems of my theory in the comments. (Like one person I met this weekend, that argued German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish… are all the same language. *grin*)

In this little world in my head, the effort of translating from one language to another brings people to a greater understanding of how cultural context guides communication. This is especially the case with mind-shifting differences, like word order on the lower impact side of things, or on the higher impact side of things: different words that are related in one language but not in another, guiding realisation that associations can differ tremendously, but that the other associations also do make so much sense. And then there’s the idiomatic expressions… those things that remain ever-elusive to a “non-native speaker”. (Anyone to whom they don’t remain elusive, I’m therefore calling native. ;) )

South Africa has many languages, and dramatically different ones at that (European and African), but typically not enough communication happens, or happened, between the cultures. At least from a conservative Afrikaans speaking culture perspective. Many Afrikaans people also speak English, but to some degree, it is too easy. They know it too well, it’s a second language, not a foreign language. And it is still much the same culture.

America has the problem that they had the rail road before they settled the content, so it became a single invasion of a single language, and now everyone speaks English. (And I’m discounting the native Americans, on the grounds that the invaders so thoroughly wiped out local culture. I’m talking about the current status quo, rather than the sad history.)

Then there’s Germany. (Hmm, and how about Italy?) What’s wrong with Germany? Well, a few years ago on a ski trip, we decided that the problem is dubbing. We decided that the root of all evil in Europe comes from using the same voice actors to dub all movies and TV programs into the same language. I mean, everyone knows that foreign language films with subtitles are a great source of World Peace, don’t they? Don’t they? How might we cure this dubbing blight?

In any case, moving on… I’m in the position where I struggle to communicate with the local culture. Or with foreign non-English speaking culture as well. It has brought a number of interesting realisations, but more on that on some other day. When it comes to bilingual cultures, having more than one language is the first step. I suggest the second step should be to force people to translate pieces of high-level writing from their “second” language into their “first” — giving them the advantage of greater prowess with the sentences and paragraphs they’re creating, so that that isn’t the hurdle.

Enough nonsense from me for now. This is a light-hearted post, so fire away. The next one to be published will most likely be the translation of a friend’s Afrikaans post (spot one of the sources of inspiration for this post ;) ), much more serious. Be like fire with light-hearted posts, be like water with the serious.

Categories: Culture
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12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben-Jammin' // Dec 17, 2008 at 3:07 am

    It makes me think of Douglas Adams…dunno if you’ve read him:

    “Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation. ”

    This will help if you haven’t read any Douglas Adams.

  • 2 gloep // Dec 17, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    More like German and English (and Afr and Norwegian and Flemish etc.) that are the same language. And then we still go and fight each other. Silly people, really.
    It’s strange but I find Europe typically superficially open-minded. Maybe I see “open-minded” differently, dunno. There’s a huge comfort gap between talking open-mindedly and living it.

  • 3 Hugo // Dec 18, 2008 at 1:58 am

    gloep++ for calling into question the open-mindedness of Europeans. Which nations might be considered more open-minded? Or are they all as close-minded as the rest of them? (And is superficially-open-minded not at least better than nothing?)

    Ben-Jammin’++ for mentioning Douglas Adams. I have yet to read his stuff, but I’ve listened to the BBC Radio Production. Brilliant stuff!

    DouglasAdams++ for just being brilliant.

    Oh, and for the non-geeks, ++ is the “increment” operator in C-like programming languages – it increases a variable by one. (So if x=10, after x++ has been executed, x will be 11.) In geeky enough online communities, johndoe++ becomes a way of expressing approval for something, kinda like casting a positive vote. And johndoe– casts a negative vote.

  • 4 Hugo // Dec 18, 2008 at 1:59 am

    Doh, that’s silly WordPress “smartness” for you: one minus: – , two minuses: — , three minuses: — , four minuses: —-

  • 5 Clare // Dec 19, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    I think the underlying point here is that being open to learning about other cultures means that you’re more likely to learn about different perspectives and by gathering more information you’re likely to be more open-minded and aware of other considerations.

    There’s a nice piece of sociolinguistic research which compares the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) and how much speakers of each language claim to be able to understand the other Scandinavian languages. It turns out that Danish speakers appear to have the highest degree of understanding the other Scandinavian languages. At the time of the study, Denmark was the least wealthy of the Scandinavian countries and thus there were advantages for them to learn other languages. I think when a country is dominant (economically or politically) there is a tendency for their language to become dominant (e.g. English) and less incentive for speakers to learn another language. For example, lots of countries accommodate English quite readily so why bother learning another language unless you need to?

    For the record, I’m a linguist and I love love love learning languages and being able to access a whole new resource of literature, music, cinema, opinons and media. I am also of the opinion that if you want democracy let people speak in their own words, in their own languages, in their own ways and make an effort to start listening!

  • 6 Werner // Dec 20, 2008 at 12:02 am

    I think the underlying point here is that being open to learning about other cultures means that you’re more likely to learn about different perspectives and by gathering more information you’re likely to be more open-minded and aware of other considerations.

    Moreover, spot the perspectives that are common among all cultures. So you learn more about nature of the beast, as supposed to nurture.

  • 7 gerhard // Jan 8, 2009 at 10:12 am

    hugo : i kinda disagree about europeans being ‘open-minded and accepting of diverse cultures ‘
    I’ve think experienced a fairly diverse setting while growing up there. Its fine if you’re living in a bigger urbanized city thats been exposed to multi culturism but if you’ve lived in a smaller town or two, then you’ll learn that foreigner is as much as a swear word as atheist is to a shofarian. You’re an intruder, and by joining their culture you’re trying to dilute it, destroy it, and take jobs away.(arrrr)

    Admittedly if you have family in the small town then you’re more treated as a son of the community that has returned home, which is very very cool.

    I have a theory about that, stems from the how europeans tend to view neighboring cultures. Basically, Neighbors of similar culture are hated, they are seen as direct competitors, directly threatening your sutble differences in the way of life that may vanish from mixing too much (as demonstrated by bigger cities and tourist towns) . If however when europeans are talking about their more culturally foreign neighbors then they will love the culturally similar and despise the more foreign one.
    (fear of the dreaded ‘neo-colonialism’)
    The question is , how do you maintain your culture and encourage your youngsters to partake in your culture unless you reject those cultures geographically around you?( self segregation to some degree or another.)

    clare :

    I think the underlying point here is that being open to learning about other cultures means that you’re more likely to learn about different perspectives and by gathering more information you’re likely to be more open-minded and aware of other considerations.

    I think the more you learn about other cultures the more likely you’re to learn about different perspectives you don’t like and by gathering more information you’re likely to be less open-minded and less considerate you if those cultures are very different to yours. Differences become daemonised and become exaggerated into stereotypes. (arab cultures and their treatment of human rights or women and kids, africans with their tribalism and muties)

    I know I’m generalizing a bit here, but i do think this is how smaller town people see this stuff. I think the rule of thumb is , the smaller the town, the bigger issue foreigners are, esp if there are foreigners in that small town.

  • 8 gloep // Feb 3, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Jou miniblog vandag is nogals van pas hierop! :D
    Open-minded Europe! Wat ‘n mite.

    Ek dink egter ek sou dit ook wou onwettig maak – dit lyk net na te veel chafing, en Europa is mos groot daarop om wette/riglyne te maak wat in die mensdom se eie langtermyn beswil is. EN brandnetels wat jou boude krap… Eina. Fynbos is beter. :)

  • 9 Hugo // Feb 4, 2009 at 12:44 am

    ;-) Yea… The swiss are something else! I got my wallet back, minus the cash (having lost it on the tram), the stereotypical Swiss verdict: “it must have been a foreigner that stole the cash!” Dem foreigners!)

  • 10 -M- // Feb 4, 2009 at 10:09 am

    For what is worth, my laptop was stolen when I first arrived in Stellenbosch…and I got it back a month later! so it’s not just about the swiss!! ;)

  • 11 Hugo // Feb 4, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Did it have any cash left in it when you got it back? No?! Ah, just like Switzerland then! :-P

    I’m keen for some news. I’ll send you an email.

  • 12 -M- // Feb 4, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Nope! everything was still in the bag (cables, headphones etc). The only thing missing? A book on Sexual selection, hehehe…will refrain from making any comments about that! ;)

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