October 10, 2013
A language is representative of the country or area where it is spoken. That is, a language can express the culture, society and politics of that particular region. It is difficult for you to speak a non-native language and not change certain aspects of your personality. This is the central argument of the New York Times editorial writer Costica Bradatan in the Aug 4, 2012 article titled, “Born Again in a Second Language.” I do not completely agree with Bradatan when he argues that “you don’t really change a language; the language changes you.” But to effectively communicate with people who speak a different language, you must familiarize yourself with the culture and traditions of the region.
A language forces you to interact with people differently. In my native language, Amharic, we use a different pronoun to address people of merit or age. This affects the way we interact with these people; it creates a distance between us. The pronouns give entitlement and power to respected people who I usually find myself afraid to approach. When speaking in English, there are no such pronouns to address the elderly or people of merit, which made for uncomfortable situations in Ethiopia when I wanted to talk to my English teacher, a person of merit, with the informal “you.” I have found it easier to talk to older people in English than Amharic because I would address them as I would any other person. Therefore, one of the things I change about myself when I change languages is how I interact with people who have a higher place in society.
People from different countries or cultures tend to have different types of humor. Translate an English joke into Amharic and I guarantee that no Ethiopian is going to laugh. The same goes the other way around. Culture and politics influence what people find funny or not, depending on their sense of humor. Because of this, you would have to understand the values of a particular society and learn to think like the people in that society in order to know what is humorous and what is not. You have to know their cultures, traditions and what matters to them to appreciate their sense of humor. As a result, when you change a language you have to change your sense of humor to enjoy what they consider to be amusing without being offensive.
Knowing a language requires you to learn objectively how it impacts human behavior so that you can fit into a new culture. Speaking a new language has the ability to change some of your values as you get integrated into the society, but it does not change who you are. I was in the first grade when I began learning English as a second language. I did not understand why I had to learn the language, but I was required to study it in school despite the fact that it was not the language spoken in my home. I learned how to switch from Amharic to English without witnessing any personality changes. I was still the same person when I was speaking in Amharic or in English.
I have been on the Hill for almost two months now. I have adjusted my perspective on the English language because I am using it all the time. Yet my Ethiopian values are still an integral part of who I am. I have not changed my personal values. I am a Hamilton College student who happens to be bilingual.
“From Where I Sit” is a column dedicated to the international voices of Hamilton’s campus. If you are an international student and are interested in contributing a column, contact Barbara Britt-Hysell (firstname.lastname@example.org).