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Thinking multilingual

(Image: When a building is not just a building. Words are like this.)

Our basic unit of meaning is the word. Each word matches an image in our minds, and oftentimes, multiple images.  In this way, vocabulary and thought are inextricably linked. It would be hard to say, for example, how many images would be attached to the A-bomb Dome in Hiroshima for the average person, if such a person in fact exists.  What do people think of when they hear those words ‘A-bomb Dome’ spoken? How many subtle shades of meaning does the ruin of this building hold for those individuals who pass by?

Learning an additional language can help us to appreciate these subtle shades of meaning.

After growing up in a largely monolingual world, I found myself one day wandering in Japan.  For survival purposes I decided to learn a few of these strange new words. One of my early words was ‘omoshiroi’ which I had heard from time to time. A light, happy, content word that taught me a belated secret.

In the Japanese English dictionary, this word was listed as meaning both ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’. This really caught my attention at the time – ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’ to me meant different things, so  which one was it? How could one word mean both things at the same time? I was twenty-one years old and had just finished a university degree in English literature, so I knew much about the English language, yet as I was to discover, I knew nearly nothing about language.

Learning to see the world through multiple languages provides a unique opportunity for us to develop a sense of the wondrous variations in interpretation and perspective. The understanding that meaning is negotiable is inescapable.  Learning another language enables us to sense the depth of life – seeing two different socially constructed worlds at the same time. The analogy of bifocal vision works here. When we see the world with one eye it is 2D, but makes sense. Yet the use of another eye opens up a whole new 3D world that is similar, yet distinctly richer.

In this sense, for the individual who understands that meaning is negotiable, they would be asking not ‘What does the A-bomb Dome mean?’ rather, they would ask, ‘What could it mean?’  A powerful difference in perspective.

Life is an extended search for meaning, even when we don’t know we’re searching.

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