And If We Don't Have The Words?


When I decided to major in Comparative Literature, I found that one of the requirements was learning at least one new language. However, ComLit majors were also given the option of studying two. Studying Spanish was an obvious choice seeing that I already had a good grasp on it and because I’m Mexican and want to be able to pass the language down to my children. I realized that the two I already had knowledge of (Spanish and English) are both strongly similar since they share the Roman alphabet, have many similar words, and syntaxes that are not so different from one another at all. While my knowledge of Spanish is not equal to that of English, I have grown up listening to Spanish enough to almost always be able to understand it when I hear it (much to the dismay of my parents who thought they were being clever when they tried to use it as code for speaking of adult matters).

For my third language, I wanted to take the opportunity to learn something that my ears were not accustomed to hearing, an East Asian language. I was stuck between Chinese and Japanese, so I asked friends, parents, and advisors for their opinions and found that many of them had the same sort of answer for me.

“Study Chinese. Japanese is on the way out, and Chinese is more useful anyway.”

What exactly does that mean? I wasn’t sure, but I kept hearing it an awful lot, even from those who were in the Comparative Literature department, those who should celebrate learning languages of all sorts. This is a relatively benign statement, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disturbed by the implications of it, that one language is worth knowing more than another, that we could treat a language being “on the way out” with such cool passivity. What I have realized is this: people tend to measure the worth of language based on how it will serve them in day to day life and in general, people are feeling less and less inclined to learn languages at all. To help sort out my thoughts, I went to Professor Mario Telò, a professor of Classics at UC Berkeley, who also instructs many Comparative Literature classes.

“With this sort of thinking, it is hard not to create a hierarchy of languages”, Telò said with a solemn head nod.

He further explained that to assign more worth to one language than another is how one language is determined to be major while others are ranked as “minor”. This subtly, but undeniably engenders the idea that some languages are worth knowing more than others. Considering the close tie between language and culture, this way of viewing languages also dangerously gives way to creating a hierarchy of entire cultures.

“Culture operates through the body like how we look and dress, but we also immediately think of culture through fixed verbal forms, language, how people interact with one another. So you cannot have one without the other,” Telò said.

Language can and has been used as a tool in creating hierarchies of power between different cultures. One example of this is the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 when the use of Korean in schools and universities was forbidden. Among other things, Korean citizens were forced to speak only Japanese and artists were strongly encouraged to create films and other creative works in Japanese as well. This demand to erase the Korean language targeted the cultural identities of Korean citizens by denying them their ability to communicate in their mother language and enforced the culture of Japan as the dominant one, leaving Korean as the language of the minority.

While this is certainly an extreme example of ranking one language above another, it does beg the question of what is actually lost when we “minorize” languages the way we do in everyday life without noticing. Professor Telò pointed out that tools such as Google Translate are incredibly useful for translating one thing into another, but also that we most often translate words of “minor” languages into those of major languages, like English.

“When we try to translate from one language to another, the original meaning is lost on us,” Telo said.

He then referenced the work of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and essayist who argued that not everything can be translated. In his work,  The Task of the Translator, Benjamin drew a now famous example of this, using the German word brot and the French word pain, which both mean “bread.”

“The French word pain comes from the Latin word pasco, which means ‘to nourish’,” Telò explained.

In French, the word pain implies sustenance, an end to one’s hunger, and to be taken care of. Bread is iconically a huge part of French culture, the lack of it was a huge instigator of the French Revolution, and the 1798 French law declared that bakers must always be able to provide bread to the people.

Are all of these meaningful associations carried over to German as well? Telò responded, “In German, brot means ‘That which is fermented.’ As you can see, while they may mean the same thing, the conceptual domain from one word to the other is completely different.”

If the difference between just two words that both simply mean “bread” is so huge, one can only imagine all of the associations that are lost in translation from language to the next. What is especially alarming is that, as Telò pointed out, we most often sacrifice the nuances of “minor” languages for the sake of their quick translation into major languages. When we do this, we work to reaffirm the hierarchy of languages and, in Telò’s words, “separate them into ones that are worth knowing and ones that are dispensable.”


We must ask ourselves if the only reason worth learning another language is if it is useful. While speaking in numerical terms, it cannot be denied that more people in the world speak Chinese than do Japanese (1.2 billion vs 128 million to be exact), but should the value of a language really be based on the size of the population that speaks it? If this is indeed the case, then we deny ourselves the opportunity to appreciate, learn about, and interact with different cultures in ways that cannot be achieved without having some grasp on the native language. We also settle for losing the bodies of literature that different languages carry with them. Most shockingly of all, we leave those who speak a different language than us as irrevocably othered and un-understood.

Alain Badiou, a French philosopher, argues in his work Handbook of Inaesthetics, that although the translation of poetry from one language to another is often “disastrous,” he insists that when we at least try to translate, we carry out the act of “experimental verification.” In this way, one can begin to understand a language that is not their own, which also facilitates the process of understanding other cultures, and opens up room for further communication.

When trying to understand the consequences of establishing hierarchies of language, it is helpful to consider English’s growing presence in the world, and how this determines North Americans’ thoughts towards other languages. Professor Telò argues that the world is being dominated by English.

In the United States, we see proof of this every day. Most high schools, including the one I attended, require only one or two years of a foreign language. The California Education Code specifies that students are required to take only one year of a foreign language, but that this can also be substituted by “visual or performing arts.” Compared to the rest of the world, this requirement is almost a joke considering that 20 European countries require students to be fluent in 2 foreign languages, which begins as early as age 6, whereas most students in the United States only begin learning another language as teenagers in high school. Within the 25% of Americans who reported speaking another language other than English, 89% said they learned this language at home while only 7% said they acquired it through schooling. The bare minimum requirements that the United States expects of its students enforces the idea that the only language that really matters is English. We should then not be surprised that immigrants are shamed for coming to the U.S not being fully fluent in English, that having an accent is considered to be a marker of lower intelligence, or that languages like Spanish (which is spoken by over 400 million people in the world) are reduced to the language of a minority. Through the absence of any pressure to learn other languages, North Americans are left with the comforting knowledge that they do not have to try, the rest of the world will simply assimilate to them.

While it might be impossible to learn every language in the world, it is not impossible to learn one (or even two) more than your own. When we do this, we broaden our horizons to other cultures and are able to better understand one another. Perhaps most importantly, when we take the time to learn another language, to capture all the little nuances of it that would have otherwise been missed, we are saying that this language is worth knowing, that the culture and history it tells is something precious that deserves to be known and passed down, just as much as any other language.

OpinionNoa Ortiz