Being bilingual – language and thought

08 Dec

Sunetra Gupta – Language and thinking (full transcript from a Radio National Saturday Breakfast broadcast 16 July 2005).

I hope teachers and parents find these reflections on being multilingual informative, and her extrapolation from her experience to the workings of language and thought is certainly interesting.

The talk could double as a text for Year 12 on Journeys. “The complex times we live in need a language that will help us understand them. Language affects how we think, how we experience life and how we understand our experiences. Sunetra Gupta spoke on this at the 12th International Conference on Thinking — she is a reader in the epidemiology of infectious disease — and she publishes complex, interesting novels, which draw on her rich cultural background.”

My exposure to a second language occured at a very early age – almost as I was learning to speak — for I was just over a year old when my parents moved to Ethiopia from Calcutta — which is where I was born, and still, in most senses, belong to. The Ethiopians were, and I am sure still are, a very proud people, and foreigners had no option but to learn their language Amharic (which has the same roots as Hebrew) if they were to survive there. This my parents did most willingly, as it was their interest in other cultures and languages that had brought them there in the first place. I, of course, acquired it naturally and spoke it alongside my mother tongue with ease — as most bilingual children clearly do. Thus, language was never a monolithic construct for me, and I was sensitized to the distance between a word and its referrent almost as I became conscious. I am not aware that being exposed this early to two languages had any particular consequences for my personal development, and Amharic is now completely lost to me, or if not lurks so deep in the recesses of my mind that it may as well not be there. In some ways, I was not even conscious of navigating between two languages, and so did not learn one of the most valuable lessons from the process of unglueing word from object — which to my mind is tolerance. Indeed, when we moved to Zambia when I was four, and I was suddenly surrounded by English speaking children, I reacted with anger rather than bewilderment – how dare they speak in a language I do not understand! — I remember thinking. Soon of course I was speaking English fluently myself, and it has occupied a prominent position in my life ever since, although I still refuse to grant it — quite irrationally of course — the same seat in my heart as my mother tongue.

So, just to summarise where I have got to so far in terms of the relationship between language and thought by indulging in my own early experiences — the demolition of a one to one correspondence between word and object is the simplest useful byproduct of learning more than one language — and in my view this is a critical step towards truly internalising the concept of tolerance, the acceptance of different styles and faiths. And although an early exposure to more than one language may have benefits with regard to fluency in both tongues, I think that too early an exposure actually detracts from the perception of the relationship between word and object as not being fixed and absolute…

Well worth reading the rest.

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Posted by on December 8, 2006 in English language, for teachers, literacy, multiculturalism


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