The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the idea that our perceptions, thoughts, and experiences are strongly influenced by our language. The second idea expressed in this theory interpreted by Daniel Chandler in his book, The Act of Writing, is that people who speak different languages perceive the world differently and think in an entirely new way.
I would like to encourage you to learn a second language so that you may understand how others perceive the world. I did, and it changes the way I think and act.
I'd like to tell you a story about Malcom, first told by Marcia Cantarella, an assistant dean at Princeton University, in an address to the Fourth Universalist Society. Malcom was a very smart kid going to a good college. Unfortunately, he had more trouble at college than others because of the color of his skin. His roommate’s mother once asked what his SAT score was, challenging his right to be at the school without the help of affirmative action. He found friends that accepted him by joining the mostly white Lacrosse team. He befriended many of them, and they accepted him. However, other black students were angry that he wasn’t hanging out with them. Nothing he did seemed to be ok. All of these things made him angry and he began to drink more and his grades started slipping. Ultimately he realized that the problem was with others and not his fault, but not before doing himself a great deal of harm.
There has been a lot of research done on discrimination. Some people are not even aware that they are being discriminatory. In a study done by Wallace Lambert, published in the Journal of Social Issues, when given sound clips of Canadians speaking French and Canadians speaking English, listeners thought the English speakers sounded more intelligent, kinder, and taller.
According to Carley H. Dodd from Western Kentucky University, this is not an uncommon experience. He says, “Research indicated that listeners make evaluations about a speaker’s ethnicity, confidence, intelligence, education, and appearance on the basis of his language behavior.” This is dependent upon the ethnicity of the evaluator compared to the group being evaluated.
In the United States, the unemployment rate is significantly higher for minorities. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that all over the country unemployment rates are higher for African-Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians.
So what is the cause of all this hate? The answer is lack of understanding. According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, language doesn’t just report experience, but also shapes perception. That means our perception of the world is different than those that speak a different language.
I interviewed Dr. Gary Totten, the English Graduate Program Director and instructor of Themes in American Culture at North Dakota State University. He told me that a lack of understanding of a different culture and language can lead to being unfairly perceived as less intelligent. This attitude leads to discrimination against those that speak a different language.
Verner C. Bickley, the Director of the Culture Learning Institute of The East-West Center in Honolulu, tells us in his essay, Language as the Bridge, that differences in languages increase tensions between countries and even cultures within a country.
I read a story about the Hmong people from the mountains of Laos. The book claims that because most of their education is oral, Americans view them as being illiterate. Of course, they are completely as intelligent as Americans, but that doesn’t stop them from being discriminated against simply because of their culture.
Luckily, there is a solution to discrimination. The key is understanding the other language and culture. Verner Bickley says that languages can provide a “bridge to understanding.” Using the same language is an effective mediator between cultures. When we know about the culture we are communicating with, we are going to have a successful conversation and resolve differences.
When Dr. Gary Totten has studied a new language, he says that he can appreciate several aspects of the culture through that language. He believes that culture is transmitted through language. He gives the example, “If a Native American language were to die out, so would some of their cultural practices and beliefs.”
Personally, I have studied the language and culture of Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and Spain. I took two years of Spanish language class in high school. Besides learning vocabulary, we spent a significant amount of time studying Spanish-speaking countries, including the people, festivals, and cultures of them.
Also while I was living at home, my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Brazil, and two from Ecuador. Through my friendships with Marina, Diego, and Leo, I learned a huge amount about their home countries and their local culture.
I would like to say that I wasn’t discriminatory before I did these things, but there is always a sense of those that are different as being “other.” Those that speak another language are certainly different than us, and we cannot help but realize it.
Discrimination is a serious problem that is prevalent in not just the United States, but the entire world. But it doesn’t have that way. Discrimination comes from a lack of understanding of other cultures. You can end discrimination by understanding another culture, and the best way to do that is to learn a language. You will lose your concept of others being different, you will see the world through their eyes, and you can prevent things like those that happened to Malcom.
Bickley, V. C. (1982). Language as the Bridge. In S. Bochner (Ed.), Cultures in Contact (pp. 99-126). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Cantarella, M. (2004). Blacks Are Burdened by Sterotypes. In M. E. Willaims (Ed.), Racism (pp. 21-28). Farmington Hills, Missouri: Thomson Learning, Inc.
Census 2000 (Publication No. Summary File 4). (2001). Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
Chandler, D. (1995). The Act of Writing. Prifysgol Cymru. Retrieved April 15, 2008, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/whorf.html
Dodd, C. H. (1977). Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Communication. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Lambert, W. E. (1967). A Social Psychology of Bilingualism. Journal of Social Issues, 23,91-109.
Totten, G. (2008). Personal Interview
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