By Chigusa Suma
Language connects the world. We use it to deliver messages to others whether through verbal or body language. Language is also vital between states, when we negotiate deals and treaties. Therefore, I would like to divide this article into two parts, the first half of which will discuss the effects of language differences and the second, how that affects foreign affairs.
According to ‘Ethnologue: Languages of the World’, there are 7,111 languages spoken today with approximately 40% of them facing the danger of becoming extinct since only a small number of people remaining speak it. A lot of people nowadays speak at least two languages, typically their native language and English, which is considers “a common language”. We call people who can speak two and three languages, bilingual or trilingual respectively. People who can speak more than two languages usually describe switching languages as ‘switching the light in the brain’. As a bilingual person (native-Japanese speaker with some knowledge in English, French, Korean and Chinese), switching from one language to another often feels like using different parts of the brain depending on what language you speak. It is difficult sometimes to switch the between languages. For example, reading in English after listening to Japanese music is difficult and leads me to think that my brain is not ready for the switch right now. Our daily life experiences are shaped by the languages we speak.
Research says that languages create human thoughts. One of the most striking pieces of evidence for this hypothesis was an experiment done by Panos Athanasopulos, a language researcher from Lancaster University, introduced in the WIRED news. In his experiment, he played a video and asked the subjects to recount what they had seen. What he found was that German speakers tended to answer that the video was about ‘A person walking towards a bicycle’ whereas English speakers tended to state that the video was about ‘A person walking’. He explained that this was because both an action and its aim is important in the German language whereas English focuses on just the action itself. He continued this experiment with bilingual speakers and found that depending on the language a bilingual user is using at the moment, their thoughts and explanations mirrored the thinking of that language. These two experiments by Panos Athanasopulos suggest that our way of thinking is shaped by the language that we are using.
This evidence of suggests that idea that given that there are 7,111 languages today, we have roughly 7,000 ways of thinking based on language alone. But then, would we not have obstacles for international communication purposes if we have different ways of thinking with our neighboring countries? Interestingly, there have been no cases in which there is a difficulty in making a compromise between nations because of the so-called ‘wall of languages’. This might be due to the increasing excellence of translators who sit with the leaders of countries to smoothen conversation between them.
However, unsurprisingly, according to Dodo, who depicts Japanese culture and history through illustration on her website, Japan had some difficulty in international relations particularly during the Edo period. At the time, Dutch was the middle language between Japanese and English and as such, they had to have two translators-one to translate from English to Dutch and one from Dutch to Japanese. Dodo explained that an English diplomat named Earnest Sato had a hard time meeting with the Japanese leaders because of this ‘wall of languages’.
Even with two languages, this system was inefficient. Consider a larger international organization like the United Nations which consists of over 200 countries. Such a multi-level translational system would be impossible. Dodo also explained that the Dutch that the Japanese used was old-Dutch from 200 years back rather than contemporary Dutch. It is perhaps quite similar to speaking Shakespeare’s dialogue in London today which is quite hard to understand. There are difficulties in foreign affairs when you have language differences since people also think differently.
To summarize, our thought is affected more or less by the language we use, and therefore differences in language could be one of the obstacles for international affairs as it was so in the Edo era in Japan. Certainly, we have a common language which is often English. So it is easier to communicate with foreign people who often don’t speak your mother tongue but still since our basic thought is created by language, there is a high possibility of having a different ways of thinking and reasoning when discussing policies internationally. The best way to solve this problem before our different way of thinking affects foreign affairs negatively, is in my opinion, have a broader perspective and remember your way of thinking might differ from others.
Illustration: Scott Huber
Chigusa Suma was born in Nagoya, Japan in 1999 as a second and the last daughter in the family. Jumping around several schools in the world starting from elementary school in China, junior high school in England and Singapore, senior high school in Canada and University in England, Paris and Uppsala including short term study. Studying English as a first major and international politics as second major. Currently working on volunteering project to help students in Sri Lankan. Like to do kyudo (Japanese Archery), baking and cooking.