Tuesday, July 23, 2013

translation plateau, cont'd

A lot of times on the first day of class you get very interesting questions; these are the better students, who have been studying during the breaks, and have been saving up these questions because they're really stuck. In this case it was a Sri Lankan woman, with very good English, who is going to be an international teaching assistant here and thus is almost ready to actually teach in English.

She said the following, roughly: "I don't have any trouble thinking and using English when I'm in my own field, because I learned everything in that field in English. But the rest of the time, I have trouble thinking in English; I always think in my native language and then translate. Why do I have such trouble? I know I can do it, I just can't bring myself to do it?

My answer was roughly the following. People have trouble at this point switching over to thinking in English. My guess is that you are afraid of losing something related to your native language. If you think about it, you won't really lose your ability to speak and remember your native language. You might forget a few words, or not have as good access to it, when you bring English to the front and use English all the time. But you won't actually lose anything.

I suspect the answer lies more in fear of losing an aspect of your native culture that you really are afraid of losing, for example, some part of its values, or its code. People at first look at American culture as if it's like the movies - it's wild, and violent, and immoral, etc. When they get here they are genuinely attracted by certain aspects of it: increased freedom and respect for women, more liberal attitudes toward the disabled or different groups of people; Americans have different attitudes toward guns, toward extramarital sex, toward racial differences. These are all bound together in what it means to you to "become more American." But it is not necessarily related to the language you speak. It is theoretically possible to speak English 100% of the time, and not really change your values or your morals at all from what you had when you got here.

What happens, though, is that we change our values little by little, subconsciously, and in some cases we are even aware of changing our values a little. And that scares us; we feel now truly cast adrift from the native culture, looking back on it and being somewhat apart from it. It reminds me of a story an Asian told me about how he went back home, possibly to Korea, and someone told him he looked like he was walking like an American, possibly taking up too much of the sidewalk. Could it be that he actually walked differently after a stint in the U.S.? If so, it could have been subconscious. The point is, we are sometimes aware we are changing, and sometimes not aware, but in the same way, we fear this, we dig in, we react to our own changes within ourselves.

I am not a counsellor, I told her, so I can't address how you talk to yourself to alleviate these fears, and absorb yourself more deeply in your new language, so as to make your life more efficient, and integrate yourself better into your new community. As you speak to yourself, separate language and morality - you can speak whatever language you want, and still keep the values that you yourself have chosen to live by. Second, assure yourself that you will not lose anything of substance - you will know your native language forever, regardless of how long you speak with something else. Finally, efficiency, ease of speech, and clear communication are enough of a reward that you will soon see that this change is worthwhile, and overdue; what is a little harder, maybe, is getting at the true differences between cultures that do involve values and morals, and decide for yourself what you want. If it's related, even in your mind, to the language you are speaking, it doesn't have to be. You learned it once purely for the ability to participate fully in your field, and teach in it. Now, use it also to really know the culture you are in. You can suspend your acceptance of all the values you presently associate with it, and take those or leave them at will.

The decision to think in a new language all the time often comes after it's efficient, easy or even possible. It ties people up because they can't do it and they can't even identify their reasons for being unable to do it. So, it seems inevitable here that we accept the idea that sometimes we are at war with ourselves subconsciously, and we have to have a good talk with ourselves to resolve it, and come out with a kind of working peace treaty. At times the next step is a very large one, and has to be taken with the entire body.

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