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We Live in Different Worlds

From the series Effective Language and Culture Acquisition


(A)n individual's thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks.

(Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis)[1]

When I was seven years old, our family moved to India, where my parents would work for the next six years. I was sent to a well-known boarding school in the Himalaya Mountains. It was a positive experience in a spectacularly beautiful environment.

At school, Sunday noon meal was always Indian-style curry and rice, but without any spicy condiments, to suit the taste of Anglo-American boys. But there was always a dish with small green fresh vegetables on the table. At first, I had no idea what that was, but I noticed that our Indian classmates would take some, crush them, and sprinkle them over their curry. My curiosity was aroused. “What’s that?” I asked.

A couple of the boys said, “Oh! Those are chili peppers. They’re cool. You know, ‘chilly.’ You ought to try them.”

Others said, “No! Don’t eat them! They’re hot!” Hot? Why, they’re not even cooked. Now I was confused. This went on for a couple of weeks.

Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to try it out. As I reached out and picked up a chili pepper, the table went silent, all eyes on me. I gingerly nibbled off the outer skin at the tip of the pepper. Nothing! So I took a big bite of most of the pepper.

Immediate explosion in my mouth! Sharp pain and agony like I had never had before! I drank a big gulp of water, but that just spread it around. I swallowed and could almost feel it as the pepper traveled to my stomach, and seemed to go down my legs, all the way to my toes! I thought I would die. It took about two hours for the anguish to subside.

On that day my semantic field for “hot” was enlarged. Over the next few years I learned to tolerate spicy hot food, and today I love to eat curry and rice. In China, the famously spicy-hot food of Sichuan is my favorite regional food.

To a native English speaker, “spicy-hot” is just one facet of “hot,” but to a Hindi or Mandarin speaker, there are different words for “hot.” Indian or Chinese speakers thus have different conceptual worlds where English speakers just have one world of “hot,” modified by various adjectival descriptors.

Mandarin “hot”[2]

热         Re        hot, burning, eager, ardent, popular

烫         Tang    hot, scalding, boiling hot

辣        La        hot, pungent, peppery, ruthless

Lexical-semantic categories are not the only areas that define different worlds for different sociolinguistic groups. Grammatical categories also present the world differently to speakers of different languages.

Take tense, for instance. English has an elaborate array of tense categories: Present Simple, Present Continuous, Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Past Simple, Past Continuous, Past Perfect, Past Perfect Continuous, Future Simple, Future Continuous, Future Perfect, Future Perfect Continuous. (I had to look these up to make sure I got them all and got them right!)[3] Tense categories have the effect of putting every utterance on a time line where every event has a temporal relationship to every other event in the context.

Chinese is simpler. No tense! (No wonder Chinese learners of English have grammatical difficulties!) Aspect is the closest thing to tense in Chinese. Aspect may be defined as “the nature of an action as being completed or single …, or as being uncompleted, repeated, or habitual.[4] Thus a simple sentence like “ta [he/she] lai [come] le [aspect marker]” can be translated as “he came,” “he has arrived,” “he is here,” “he is about to arrive,” “he has started on his way here,” etc., depending on the context.

What effect does tense vs. aspect have on the shape of Western and Eastern cultures? I would suggest that tense may be one reason why Westerners’ lives are dominated by deadlines, schedules, on-time performance, and efficiency (amount of product in an interval of time). With almost everything a native English speaker does or says, there is some element of time awareness. Even an informal good-bye may be something like “see ya later!”

In contrast, while China has adapted to the global social economy (e.g. on-time performance of bullet trains), social and business interactions are dominated more by appropriateness of the time than a deadline. Schedule is important, but something as critical as business can only be done in social relationship and trust, harmoniously developed over time.

What implications does this have for cross-cultural application? How does a student of language enter a target culture? In my view, since language and culture are inextricably linked, it follows that classroom experience alone is insufficient. Ideally, to truly learn the language, one should make friends and communicate with native speakers of the target language, preferably in their cultural environment, in settings where English is not spoken.

The reader may say, “Is that it? I’ve heard that before. Isn’t there some faster, more efficient way to learn a language and enter their world?” Not really, despite promises that online language programs may offer. In the end, we learn language through conversation, with all its nuances and cultural content.

One summer in the 1980s I directed a language program in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. One day I took the afternoon off to visit Taersi, the largest Lama Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet. Taersi was in Huangzhong, about 16 miles from Xining. To get there, I took an intercity bus, an antique diesel with wooden bench seats. I was the only foreigner, but the wizened country folk didn’t pay me any attention.

About half-way to Huangzhong, the driver stopped the bus, shut off the engine, grabbed an empty jar, walked across the road, and squatted by one of the many beekeepers. The two had a smoke and a nice chat while the beekeeper filled the jar with fresh honey. I wondered when we would get to Huangzhong, but no one else showed any impatience at all! I was thinking of timeline and schedule, but to everyone else it was just a nice day in Qinghai! We were together on the bus, but we were in two different worlds!

Fortunately, I had spent years in China and knew what was going on, so I consciously relaxed and pushed deadlines into the background. It really was a nice day, a good time to be in Qinghai!

Image credit: yuxiu0702 from Pixabay 

Mark Newland

Mark Newland (pseudonym) lived in Taiwan for a decade and since then has lived and worked for extended periods in the People's Republic of China. His PhD is in General Linguistics, reflecting his deep interest in language and culture. He has been involved in a wide variety of pursuits in …View Full Bio


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