If the world is an onion, one can peel off each layer by learning the languages of different countries. One can’t truly experience a culture until they have fully acquired the language of that culture, because within a language, that specific culture’s history is embedded in it. For example, in English, one would say “let’s go to my house,” since the word “my” is the fundamental indicator of the possession of a house. However, in Korean, one would say “let’s go to our house.” Even in this subtle change in diction, there is already a sizable implication that comes with it. The word “our” is the fundamental indicator in the Korean language; in other words, using the word “my” would not be correct syntactically in Korean. Just in this example, we can trace the histories of the two cultures back to their origins: Korea was founded upon a Confucian ideal, where filial piety and the idea of family predominates the culture. On the other hand, America fosters the concept of rugged individualism, where rags-to-riches stories and capitalistic spirit embodies the heart of Americans.
Once I understood the liberation languages can provide, I began wondering how cut off I am from the rest of the world both culturally and intellectually. There are over 180 countries in the world and roughly 6500 different languages are spoken, even though some of them have fewer than 1000 speakers. I, on the other hand, can only speak two languages fluently: English and Korean.
In a societal setting, my bilingual ability can be looked upon favorably. I can serve as an interpreter in a situation where both parties cannot fully speak each other’s languages, or I can thoroughly cross-examine both languages – English and Korean – and explore the different nuances both have. But there are only so many languages one can master, given the capacity of one’s brain to hold all the information. I once came across a video of a student named Tim Doner who could fluently speak 19 languages, including French, Urdu, Swahili, Spanish, and more. The initial moment of awe subsided once I realized 19 languages is infinitesimal compared to the 6500 languages, and even a polyglot like Tim could not decipher the world through the lens of our oral communication.
An interesting thought emerged while I was listening to a Chinese pop music the other day. I, being of Korean descent, know next to nothing about the Chinese language, except the fact that there are tonal aspects in the language which alters the meaning of words. The song was that of a typical rock ballad: the main vocalist spearheads the music video with a passionately desperate chorus while the instrumentalists complement the vocal line with an up-tempo beat.
In the song, there was emotion begging to be delivered and lyrics pining to be interpreted. But to a foreigner’s ear (me), the lyrics essentially amounts to noise. The reason language exists is to convert the sounds our mouths make into something that holds meaning in our brains. No matter how crisply the singer may articulate his words, I will not understand Chinese, and therefore, the lyrics won’t translate into something meaningful to me. But for a listener from mainland China, the lyrics will actually hold a meaning of some sort, and this “noise” that I hear will materialize as an idea for those that can speak the Chinese language.
The very idea of multiculturalism comes from this notion that humans have found a way to express their thoughts and their emotions in a completely different way both phonetically and syntactically. Language arose from our need to communicate, and this necessity became a cornerstone of human achievement. Ironically enough, our desire to communicate became the very reason why a Japanese cannot hold a leisurely conversation with a Brazilian, why English is now the lingua franca in a business meeting, and why I cannot understand this Chinese music I’m listening to right now.