Thinking and Language

In response to my thoughts about the importance of studying other languages to increase the sharpness of our thinking (in my observations on our can-do attitude versus respect for intellectuals in my series of blog posts on thinking), David VanVlack commented:

“I have long observed this too. The way thoughts are expressed in different languages are a window into the culture of those who speak it, and the way they look at the world. That’s why it’s so important to study languages, IMO. I would bet that if more people who were making policy in connection with Vietnam had had some understanding of the language (not necessarily even fluency), things might have been a bit different.”

David’s words bring to mind two thoughts.

First, almost all Americans I encounter find my facility with languages (I have spoken seven) truly remarkable. But speakers of other languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Italian, German) see nothing particularly admirable in speaking multiple languages. They all do it out of necessity. Citizens of Switzerland, for example, are commonly proficient in French, German, and Italian because all three are spoken in their country. For them, competency in multiple languages is ordinary and universal.

But we Americans, in our superiority, have never felt a need to learn other languages. Almost everywhere in the world I have lived or visited, a large proportion of the population speaks American English. It must be the most regularly studied foreign language in the world.

Since we don’t have to speak other languages to get by, we judge that competence in languages other than English is monumentally difficult to achieve. We see it as a special talent. As a result, we overlook a valuable tool in learning to think.

My second thought in response to David is that we went into the war in Vietnam without understanding the enemy we were facing. That was, in the long term, why we lost the war. We didn’t comprehend the North Vietnamese willingness to die to the last man to achieve independence from foreign domination nor their devotion to guerrilla strategies to wear us down and finally deplete our patience.

During the thirteen years I devoted all my waking moments to Vietnam and trundled several times a year to that country, I never once met an American in military command or position of authority who spoke Vietnamese. Had we taken the time to study the language of our foe, we would have achieved an insight into his way of thinking. Instead, we were baffled and defeated, then withdrew.

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