When I was about 7 years old, my brother had a series of children’s songs on cassette tape. One of the songs included this chorus:
Danke schön, mein Herr!
Danke schön, danke schön!
Thank you, my King—
For life is so wunderschön!
The problem? I didn’t yet speak German. So what I heard instead was this:
Donkey shave my hair!
Donkey shave, donkey shave!
Thank you my King—
For life is so wonder shave!
I knew, even then, that what I was hearing didn’t make a lick of sense. But since it’s what I heard, it’s what I sang. I sang it loudly and with appropriate harmonic flourishes, and I sounded great!
I didn’t begin learning German for about four or five years later, so it wasn’t until I moved on to secondary school that I realized what the lyrics truly had been.
Until I could hear the lyrics in the tongue they were composed and originally sung in, I had an incommensurability problem.
Worse still: until I learned the language of the song, and used that learning to listen again, I didn’t really know where my problem lay or how to fix it.
That’s so like life.
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein
In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds.” —Thomas Kuhn
When two worlds intersect, if they do not share a common “language”—what the philosophers call a common measure—they will struggle to understand each other. Each will tend to interpret the other in terms of her own base of knowledge and assumption. Their values will be distinct, perhaps coincidentally compatible, but more likely contrasting or competing outright.
Marginalized social groups manage this problem of distinct linguistic, knowledge, and assumption systems in an interesting way. Exposed to common and dominant languages as well as those that carry our communities’ messages, strategies, and insights, we often become “multilingual.” Codeswitching is not necessarily something we do for fun; it’s more commonly something we do to survive.
By necessity, we’re conversant with the languages, systems of meaning, and expected patterns of behavior dominant in the wider culture as well as those that apply in our own safer and more familiar places. But that knowledge is rarely reciprocal.
I was born to Jamaican immigrant parents in England toward the end of an era when teaching children other European languages was a class-based luxury rather than a social or professional basic. The educational system didn’t yet rank Asian, Mesopotamian, African, or other regional language groups as high-value languages to learn. Our elders were also more likely to diminish our cultures’ patois and dialects than encourage us to adopt and respect them alongside Standard Written English and Received Pronunciation.
All of the countries I’ve lived since then in have promoted English over other languages—even Jamaica, which gives the Anglo tongue greater respect than it does its own patois. For the most part, English (really Englishes) has (have) always had more cultural capital in these societies, and it’s connected me to greater educational and social opportunities than any other linguistic-cultural system could have. I was destined to be an anglophone and receive the local and international benefits that English-speaking brings with it. Only in the Jamaican food market or on the street among my age-mates has my English-First brain ever felt like a liability.
My parents, both from subsistence country farming families and both striving to rise up through the service and caring professions, rarely spoke patois at home. Because they never addressed my siblings or me with it except when excited or upset, patois is part of my emotional register: it conveys stories and frustration and humor and survival, concepts and perceptions that don’t translate well out of context, whole worlds that the Queen’s English not only doesn’t permit entry to but also actively undermines understanding of.
But I can’t sustain conversations in that language. I feel it in my blood, in the tightening of my muscles, in the pulsing of my heart. I’ve inherited it as a stranger, and I can’t mirror my parents when they switch back into that world. We are separated by culture and experience and languages, even as we’re connected by genes and love and name.
The hardest thing about grad school wasn’t the 60-70 hour weeks I worked without flinching, the opacity of Habermas, or the cyclical infections of imposter syndrome. The hardest thing was seeing incommensurability step out of my philosophy of science readings and assume a defeated posture in my conversations with my parents whenever they asked me how my course was going and when I’d be done.
Just about all I could say was “I’m doing well” and “I’m tired.” Just about all they could say was “Keep it up, I’m proud of you” (Dad) and “Remember I always tell you to stop and smell the roses” (Mum). Beyond my sharing an article or video once in a while or tracking down texts for my mother’s history classes, that was as much as our language-worlds intersected. We learned—or at least I did—from the resistance and fear of fundamentalism meeting pluralism. I learned not to poke Mama Bear with a stick.
I quickly became fluent in the languages I was learning, languages and ways of seeing that helped me to understand and interpret myself and the worlds I was entering. But that fluency came at cost.
Sometimes, the languages we’re most familiar with actively undermine our perception and understanding of others. I haven’t yet found a way to bridge the distances between my worlds and my parents’. It makes sense that the abstract solution is “Learn more languages and use them!” Simple solution. Straightforward. Not so fluid in the flesh.
And I don’t yet know what the answers are. Not with the Church and its many minorities. Not with the ethnic groups who don’t live with near each other and live as if in different universes. Not with children like me and families like mine.
But maybe this is the research question of my life: We are connected—that’s not negotiable. So how will we live together? If we can’t learn one another’s languages, and only some of us can learn new languages, new symbols, new stories, how will we share our lives?