Language

There’s a conversation I started in September. But didn’t get through because I had too much to say! And can we just pause and recognise how there’s so much to talk about, friends. The world’s moving in all kinds of directions and at an alarming rate. We’ve never needed guiding voices of truth more than we do at a time such as this. And blogging is one way to keep conversations going.

Communication is one of the fundamental aspects of life. In order to be effective in any area, one requires a mastery of communication skills. That is, the ability to clearly articulate oneself; be understood as one should; listen to what the other is saying; hear both the spoken and unspoken things; and respond in a manner that maintains the intended direction. Free from misunderstanding, misalignment or otherwise. We know all too well that many a time, confusion and strife result from conversations gone wrong. When filtered through, there was actually no issue at all. But a simple, yet unfortunate, case of ‘lost in translation’.

This is one of the reasons why English is a core discipline in many educational systems. Learners are required to at least have a good grasp of the language. The mode of communication used to explain the world in which we live. Enabling teachers to unpack key information. Ensuring learners gain an understanding of various topics. And empowering learners to function successfully in the world of men. Where our interactions, relations, and dealings (amongst others) define the order of the day. Amidst different backgrounds, values, systems, cultures, traditions, heritages, and faiths. All of which are somewhat unified under umbrella educational standards.

Yet while English is generally viewed as the most commonly spoken language in the world. There remain parts of the world where the language is not spoken at all. Like parts of China, which almost exclusively speak one of the five major dialects of Chinese (Mandarin at the fore). In fact, with c1.2 billion people speaking Mandarin today, it holds pole position as the most commonly spoken language in the world; once occupied by English with c1.1 billion speakers. Yet Mandarin has also been identified as the hardest language to learn. So, while Mandarin is increasingly prevalent in today’s society, many of us can neither speak nor understand the language, and will likely struggle to learn it. Interesting thought. Just recently, Forbes published an article to the effect that the USA’s pre-eminence amongst the world’s top research universities is diminishing amidst an increasing quantity and higher quality researchers coming out of China. On a trajectory that is poised to overtake the USA in the coming years. And they’re probably not speaking English!

So, those of us who live in a world where English is the primary language, think, process, talk, and create in English. I hope you get what I’m saying. However, somewhere in the world are those who have no understanding of English – can’t speak it; write it; or anything; yet are thinking, processing, talking, and creating by some other language. With the same results, or even greater. Some even doing more for inventions and advancement than English-speaking nations.

Which brings me to today’s topic.

Language is defined as “the principal method of human communication, consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way and conveyed by speech, writing or gesture”. In simple terms, language refers to the words used to speak in communicating a particular point. That is, the spoken words touching a particular area. However, it’s also defined as “a system of communication used by a particular country or community”. Which means that in communicating the particular point, it’s possible for the language to only be understood by a limited group of people, with its application developed around the understanding of those people, who’re able to relate with it in a way others can’t. I’ll come back to this point. And so, without delving deeper to fully understand and appreciate the exact point intended to be conveyed by the language used, how can one be sure they’ve understood the subject in the way it was intended? And didn’t receive less or more or possibly even none at all?

The thing about uniform educational systems and standards is they assume the language used across different contexts is similarly applied and understood. Without distortion of the original meaning and intent. Simply because the world judges and is judged by the same brush. We’re all deemed to be on the same page even before we’ve opened our mouths. And, if you think about it, this is the essence of communication. The assumption of a unified and aligned exchange using a common language.

Let’s go deeper. In a world of many languages, many of which were originally derived from other languages; ‘translatability’, being “the capacity of meaning to be transferred from one language to another without undergoing fundamental change”, is not as simple. In fact, ‘untranslatability’, being “the property of text or speech for which no equivalent can be found”, often occurs. Making it difficult to arrive at the perfect translation. Whether we’re dealing with a written translation, or a conversation between people of different languages using a common language (in which case the translation primarily takes place in the minds of the hearers).

Take the English language, for instance. Though it’s of Germanic and Dutch origin, much of it is derived from Latin, and some from other languages like Greek and Arabic. Now, that’s a lot! Compounded on this, English is a pragmatic language (which loops back to my earlier point). Where the context regularly influences the meanings attached to words. Let me explain. The use of language in social settings is assessed to arrive at a common understanding and, by way of example, depending on the context, “ship out” can mean get out; post; send by ship or boat; sail away; or move away. It can even be an insult if said in that kind of way. Pragmatic language skills include analysing body language, tone, pace and so forth, to better understand the message underlying the words. And a pragmatically competent person would have a good understanding of pragmatic elements in communication to avoid inaccuracies and misunderstandings. Makes sense, I guess, from a pragmatic perspective!

However, some languages are more lethargic and indifferent or apathetic to context. Like Latin, Hebrew, Greek and Arabic, for instance. Where the words ‘ship out’ bear a single, clear meaning. So, for the English language, which is pragmatic, yet sometimes derived from lethargic languages; this means that the word used by a lethargic language may become an entire sentence in English. And there goes the original intent. Incidentally, for those who’re students of the Bible, this conversation has a great bearing. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. However, the primary translations of the Bible are in English. And every other day men are interpreting and analysing scripture by the English language. But even in there are various English sub-translations; New King James, Message, Amplified, King James Version, Good News, and so forth! It’s no wonder the many divergent doctrinal interpretations! But back to topic. Add to this that some words in the English language can’t even be translated in other languages (like bully, awkward, shallow or insight, etc). And we have a problem!

I wonder if we fully appreciate just how much is lost in translation every day. Because sometimes, the original meaning can only be understood in the context applied by the original language. But in a world of many languages. With some having priority over others. And let’s not even get started on divergent voices and opinions concerning the interpretations applied. How much of everything that is read, spoken, and taught is actually understood the way it was originally intended? Because one thing is clear. It’s shaping who we’re becoming. And the penny drops!

Take colonisation – a significant part of our African story. Although modern colonialism began with Portugal in the 15th Century, and was primarily marked by Europeans colonising the Americas (the Age of Discovery), for most of the 19th Century, Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy established control and ruled over our continent. Citing economic, political and religious reasons. They invaded our lands and brought with them their systems, principles and patterns. Encapsulated in their languages. Which became the prevailing standards of communication. Responsible for modernisation as we know it. Defining the first and third world. And taking preference over our languages. We were taught in their languages and according to their ways. Measured by their standards. Defined successful according to their interpretation. Limited to dream within the bounds of their imagination; stirring creation and innovation within us from a place they pre-defined. Using their understanding to communicate our ideas. And judging ourselves by their voices. And we still think all we lost was our freedom?! The colonisers have long left. But their ways remain deeply engrained in our societies. And I’m talking macro level here.

We dress like them for 364 days of the year. And then celebrate our heritage; put on traditional attire and spread our tables with every traditional food possible on one day of the year. And it’s a cause for celebration?! Yet we continually reinforce our Africanism at every opportunity that presents itself. Shouting from the mountain top that we’re African and greatly pride in our authentic selves. But the moment we’re amongst them; we talk like them, sound like them and do our best to fit in with them. Even our African accents become more European. We bake like them, cake like them and taste like them too. And no judgement, friends. I’m a part of this! And if you’re not the one I’m talking to. Then you’re off the hook!

After all. Colonisation is a language. Like slavery and war (mentioned purely for the examples). Because the systems we function under are a language. So, we must be conscious of what we’re saying everyday by those systems. And this extends to the traditions and cultural practices established within them. I wonder. What could have become had the African man speaking an African language used his African voice to build an African dream? How much did we really lose in translation? And are we too far gone to reverse it?

If we go back to basics. We must answer the question; who is language intended for? The hearer or the speaker or both? Because we understand its purpose – communication. It seems we’re so focused on being heard with insufficient attention paid to expressing who we are at the core. We’re communicating with each other every other day. But hardly enough with the self or, at least, in a manner that is authentic to the self. Which should really come first.

I believe it boils down to language and speech; but firstly, for the speaker. Let the hearers hear what they’re able to receive from where they’re at. They’ll eventually catch up. The Bible’s clear that nothing is impossible to those who imagine it when their language and speech are reconciled. Because a reconciliation of the two is required. An alignment of what you’re speaking in your heart and the language available to you to articulate this. The moment we allow an external force to have a bearing on the process of translation, which really is firstly internal, something gives in the way we create and express our authentic selves. It’s time to let loose of our inherent wiring from without; built and established over many years by the systems (including educational) of this world. And unleash some other way from within!

At least, that’s our plan. But, for now. You’ll find us caking the best way the systems of this world have taught us. Until the day we unlock that other way we’ve not yet seen or heard of before. But we’re convinced exists. Because we have the language. It’s within us. This blog is proof. Just not yet the speech. But eventually, the two should reconcile. And when they do. Get ready for magic!

Yours in baking,

Chi

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