The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language

Knowing others is wisdom;  knowing yourself is enlightenment–Lao Tzu

Folks who hear me speak Japanese often marvel at my “knack for foreign languages.” Truth is I don’t have a knack. I’ll admit that I always did okay in English at school and had a decent grasp of grammatical concepts from an early age, so maybe I’m slightly smarter than the average bear when it comes to learning languages. But that doesn’t constitute a knack.

It also doesn’t hurt that I come from a long line of Irish talkers; both my parents were articulate, and raised us to speak standard, grammatically correct American “Midwestern” English. In this sense I’m carrying on the great Sullivan tradition of talking.

The Navy provided the conditions that made it possible to learn Japanese, by sending me to Japan at the tender age of nineteen. My eventual fluency in Japanese was a product of sheer effort backed by a powerful primordial motivation:  I wanted to talk to all the beautiful Japanese ladies (yes all of ’em), most of whom didn’t speak  a lick of English.

I was discharged from the Navy in Japan in 1979. In April 1980 I enrolled in Waseda University’s one-year, intensive Japanese language program. That year at Waseda was a turning point. It was the year I learned to carry on a basic conversation (however clumsily) in Japanese. It was also the year it dawned on me that learning a foreign language didn’t assure effective communication would happen. I learned the hard way that if you don’t understand the values, assumptions, thought process and culture behind the language you’re studying, then it’s better if you don’t speak the language at all.

The idea of distinguishing the spoken word from the concept of “communication” might sound odd, maybe even cryptic to someone with limited experience with other cultures. To simplify the concept let’s use driving a car as an analogy.

We can all agree that a car is essentially a transportation tool to get you from point A to point B. You can learn the mechanics and technique of driving that car — how to start the engine, put it in gear, turn left or right, press the brake to stop, etc. This would be analogous to learning the grammar and vocabulary of a foreign language. Problem is, if you don’t understand the “rules of the road” then how would you know that a red light means “stop”? Or which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on?

Extending the analogy, by learning and using a foreign language without knowledge of the cultural “rules of the road”, your language ability ceases to be a tool, and now becomes a dangerous weapon. And that’s exactly where my development was at that point in time: unbeknownst to me I was “driving the car” on the wrong side of the road, and in doing so, running through red lights and over my Japanese hosts, rather than building meaningful connections as I should have. It took several years of hard-knocks to figure it out.

Again and again I stumbled onto clues that something was missing in my communication repertoire. Wasn’t sure at the time exactly what it was, but I had the foresight to enroll at International Christian University in Mitaka Tokyo, where for the next 4 years I would continue studying the Japanese language, and eventually major in communications with an emphasis on Intercultural studies.

I stumbled onto intercultural communication when I signed up for a class in my sophomore year entitled, appropriately, “Introduction to Intercultural Communication.” Taught by a stodgy American professor, I showed up the first day of class thinking we would be studying the finer points of Japanese culture. Imagine my surprise when the professor announced that we were going to focus on American culture.

I immediately decided to drop the course, but politely waited until the end of class, after which I approached the professor to ask when he’d be offering a class on Japanese culture.

The professor couldn’t answer my question but gave me great advice that stuck with me all these years. He said, “if you really want to learn to communicate with other cultures, you have to understand your own culture first. That way you have a baseline for comparison and are better equipped to deal with any culture.” Then he added, “Unfortunately most people don’t understand their own culture. Focusing on self-understanding is the best place to start.”

I took his advice to heart and didn’t drop the course. And it proved to be a humbling experience, because I realized for the first time that I had been unconsciously projecting my values onto my Japanese hosts since I had arrived in Japan. To quote Rick Perry, “oops.”

Here’s a Zen parable that beautifully sums up the notion of knowing oneself:

Two tadpoles are swimming in a pond. Suddenly one turns into a frog and leaves the pond. Upon the frog’s return to the water, the tadpole sees the frog and asks, “Where did you go?”

“I went to a dry place, ” answers the frog.

“What is ‘dry’?” asks the tadpole.

“Dry is where there is no water,” says the frog.

“And what is ‘water’?” asks the tadpole.

“You don’t know what ‘water’ is?” the frog says in disbelief. “It’s all around you! Can’t you see it?”

The moral of the story: Values so permeate our cultures that we take them for granted; so immersed are we that our values are invisible. Without self-awareness, it’s impossible to connect with others.

In concrete terms I had been assuming that just because I, as an American, valued individualism, freedom, self-expression, equality, logic, and truth, that my Japanese counterparts–and every other culture in the world for that matter–naturally shared these values.

How wrong I was!

This “introduction” to my own culture proved to be a major turning point in my life. But it was more than that. Once the light bulb clicked on my worldview suddenly had a panoramic vantage point. The notion that something as abstract and “invisible” as a cultural value had so much power in connecting (and driving apart) people was an epiphany. And it kindled a passion for cultural anthropology, eventually leading to the profession that I’ve spent the last thirty-plus years practicing.

Learning a foreign language was indeed a game-changer for me. But only because it forced me to look at myself through the filters of another culture and “see” my own values. Unfortunately it took too many head-on collisions to realize I was driving on the wrong side of the road, evidence that maybe, just maybe, I’m not smarter than the average bear?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

6 responses to “The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language

  1. Aloha Tim! Insightful and well written essay. Brought back memories of many of my cross cultural challenges in living with Japanese. Or perhaps “brings” to mind current challenges as I am always learning more about living with Japanese?

    A bit of a tangent but following the Republican primary contest makes me wonder how much I really know about “my” American culture?

  2. I’m sure many people can relate to this article. I think another thing that people tend to do is compare their own native culture and a foreign one and always try to identify where that foreign culture they believe is “wrong.” I am still guilty of doing this but only because you get so immersed in the culture you live in. Sporadic trips overseas kind of forces you to see both sides of your culture split, resulting in a more contrasting experience, not a comparative one.

  3. Frog and tadpole.
    Heard the story years back.
    A good explanation of context, which is kind of my hobbyhorse.
    Thanks.

  4. I really enjoyed readiing this, Tim. Like you, I feel quite strongly that it’s not enough to just learn to speak a foreign language. If you want to be able to truly communicate and connect with another culture, you need to also understand the mindset and cultural values behind whatever language you are learning. As I’m sure you know, there is quite a bit of talk about the U.S. public education system and how far behind the U.S. in terms of making sure kids learn a foreign language. Growing up I was fortunate to go to a school that taught French and Spanish. I studied Spanish for four years in high school and one year in college. The focus of those classes was on learning to speak (i.e. grammar, vocabulary). The limited exposure I got to the cultures of Spanish-speaking cultures was about famous historical figures (explorers like Lope de Vega or post-colonial heroes in Latin America). But it was only when I moved to Spain that I started to understand how my own upbringing in mainstream U.S. colored my worldview. I love the tadpole story. It reminds me of an analogy that a former colleague at the Peace Coprs used about fish swimming in a fishbowl and how we all wear cultural goggles.

  5. Very true, and often disregarded in the classroom approach to learning a new language. “The idea of distinguishing the spoken word from the concept of “communication”…this pretty much sums it up. We cannot undermine the influence of communication and conversing in learning when being distracted by the ‘word’ and the ‘language.’

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