Limits of language

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

Upon reading this I can’t help but think about learning Español and pasa Thai and how through language acquisition I’m trying to expand my cultural boundaries.

But when I continued to stare at the quote I realized that language is much more than that. In one of his lectures on life by design, Jim Rohn talked about the correlation between language and behavior. Apparently there was a study that revealed, quite by accident, that prisoners share a common language: a limited vocabulary.

Language either broadens or bounds your outlook and choices. Language also shapes our behavior. In this case, a limited vocabulary restricts people’s understanding of what they see and what they think they can or cannot do. Language can free us and offers a mountain top perspective.

Our parents and our parents’ parents have always pushed education as a means to better your self but with this study I feel like we can get pinpoint specific.

It’s not a surprise that the study discovered a relationship between vocabulary and prisoners’ behavior. The only surprise is that it seems so obvious. I remember when the movie Freedom Writers (based on the book) came out. Inner city kids were given the opportunity and the encouragement to express themselves through writing. This opened up the possibility of pursuing college, something these high schoolers didn’t even consider before.

It seems we should be teaching our children how to be better communicators. How much of our problems stem from miscommunication?

I think through language we harness the ability to see things from different angles, perspectives and view points which allow us to in turn unlock the combination to many safes. Not only can we relate to different cultures, we can describe, observe and explain our own feelings and thoughts. And anyone who is learning another language or is trying to explain themselves even in their own native tongue knows how hard this can be.

Since living abroad I have come to appreciate language in ways I never previously thought of. As I was writing this I started to think about how language can broaden or enrich our lives. I thought about how we might address an angry person; we might say, “calm down” or “stop it” or “get a hold of your self”, none of which is very helpful in creating a positive picture.

In Thai jai yin translates to “cool heart” and lawn yin means “hot heart”. You would use the latter to reference someone with a temper and jai yin to help remind someone to cool down. Whenever I tell my best friend jai yin he immediately smiles. The words create a powerful picture and an effective one too.

I know there are countless examples of expressions not said in the English language that quickly convey an equally beautiful meaning, but I don’t know them yet! I’m still trying to learn my first foreign language. It’s so difficult but I’m eager to get crackin’ on safes for they hold so many riches behind their thick doors.

But don’t let your “word a day” exercises bring you to new heights of snobbery. My best friend was showing a new coworker around, getting to know him, making small talk, etc. when the topic got around to women. This is what the new guy said, “I can only date a woman who has been to college. I mean, I like to talk at a certain level.”

This guy continued to say, “I think if you haven’t been college educated then you don’t have the ability to consider another opinion.”

My best friend Brad has not completed college and I’d like to state that he does have the ability to consider other opinions. He also had the good sense, when his new co-worker said all this, to keep his mouth shut.

2 thoughts on “Limits of language

  1. George Orwell had also postulated the extent to which language could define our boundaries. For lack of a word or phrase to encapsulate it, there becomes a lack of a concept overall.English is distinct for its massive vocabulary, boasting the largest lexicon of any language on Earth. And yet, I find myself constantly impressed by Spanish words like “asomar” and “atinar” for their capacity to succinctly express what in English we need entire phrases for. Which is not to discount the metaphorical beauty of languages with more limited word counts, who have found ways to describe “twilight” as “the mouth of the night,” such as it is referred to in Guaraní.Each new language learned holds a treasure chest of words that cultivates our way of thinking, as much as the all the fine mental exercise of studying it does. It's unfortunate that many people with the means to do so will never bother to speak outside their native tongue.

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