The first sounds of a newborn baby do not sound like an adult language. The first few years the baby absorbs sights and sounds from her family and surrounding people, babbling perhaps but not quite putting sentences coherently together. But, much before a toddler can express herself verbally, a baby can express her needs through physical actions like pointing at things, noises and facial expressions of various levels of approval and disapproval of objects and actions.
When we learn our first language, we develop the mental apparatus of a fully formed human language – rich in vocabulary, supported by structure of grammar, supported by sounds, senses and symbols that reinforce the structure and vocabulary. Moreover we use our native language to interact with others around us, our family, friends and teachers. This gives us continuous positive reinforcement for learning.
We find that language allows us to give symbols to things, to label or name them. This simple action then allows us to manipulate anything about the universe inside our heads – the faraway sun, moon and stars, the stellar distances we can describe in terms of their distances, shapes, colors, sizes, composition and so on. We can create relationships between any set of symbols in the language, and thereby the known universe. This ability to describe and manipulate reality in our heads through the use of symbols is extremely empowering. We are only limited by the senses and our ability to process new information.
After investing so much effort in learning our first language and reaping its many benefits, why would we want to learn a new language ? If it’s just another set of symbols, why not use the existing set we already know. Is our existing language in some ways incomplete? Is there a universal set of symbols we must know to fully describe the universe? Many people have thought of this. One well known attempt was the “Characteristica Universalis” or the Alphabet of human thought by Leibnitz. He thought of it when encountering a new Asian language, I believe Chinese.
What I find interesting about learning a new language is that it allows construction of new patterns of thought, of discovering different kinds of associations that are possible in the realm of human thought, thereby expanding one’s human experience.
I’ll tell you a story. Once when travelling in Beijing, I happened on an art exhibition. An eager young artist caught hold of me looking at his painting and enthusiastically started talking about it to me in Chinese. I asked him what it was. “Ai, Ai.. love” he replied in a mix of Chinese and English. He knew the English word for it and I understood that the symbol he described was probably the Chinese symbol for love, but this confounded me because the symbol in no way inspired in me that particular emotion. So I asked him again about this symbol and why it stood for love. He answered by talking ever louder in Chinese. I in turn kept asking louder in English.
A friendly interpreter came to us to break the impasse and understood my question. His answer was simply – the character is drawn to impress the artist’s girlfriend. If the letter was written very simply, what space would there be to show flourish in his expression ?
Whether this answer was accurate, he did point me to a new association. That the primal source of the creative impulse – is to impress the potential suitor or the potential benefactor. It’s not so much about describing reality as it is about this very human desire. This is what gives rise to nuance and flourish and poetry in human expression. That is why human languages appear so fluid and flexible, even messy and unstructured to us, say in contrast to arithmetic.
When learning a new language we have to create this space for new association, a space where we can interact with not only the sights and sounds but also different meanings embedded in the new language. Learning a new language gives us the opportunity to look at the world once again with a beginner’s mind.