Are we what we say?

I’ve continued to read Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate. Because it’s non-fiction, I tend to read it in fits and spurts and I jump around from chapter to chapter. I also have pink post-its stuck in pages here and there– I almost never do this with books I read for pleasure (maybe it reminds me of work– where I use virtual post-its in iAnnotate). Anyway, on page 286 here is what Tan writes:

Even more dangerous, in my view, is the temptation to compare both language and behavior in translation.

Here, I think she is talking about making assumptions about what someone thinks based on what they say– or more specifically, based on errors they make in their second language. At the same time, I’m intrigued by the pairing of language and behavior in the context of translation. You see, language is more than the words– more than linguistic equivalence. It is how those words are used in a given cultural context. How those words may or may not match up with actions, facial expressions, and gestures.

This last week was a busy one– I’d been calling it research month. At UT, we had two visitors: Anthony Salvatore, who presented on concussion in sports and Larry Leonard who spoke to us about comprehension difficulties in specific language impairment. Then, a few of us (faculty, post docs, doctoral students) went to UT San Antonio for a conference on the bilingual brain. Then, I went to GSU on Wednesday to give a talk on profiles of bilingual children. My head is full!

Anyway, two folks in particular made me think more about alignment of culture, expression, and speech. Karen Emmory talked about bimodal bilinguals (ASL-English) and about how in ASL facial expressions are used grammatically. In passing she mentioned that sometimes that’s a source of miscommunication between people who sign (and who subconsciously may be using these facial gestures and signs when speaking to people who don’t sign). At GSU, I met Şeyda Özçalışkan who studies gesture. She has done a couple of cross-linguistic and bilingual studies looking at how gestures are used when language typologies are different. Turns out– they are. And, what happens with late bilinguals?  We talked about a new study she has in press in which she finds that Turkish-then English bilingual adults gestures tend to match Turkish in both languages, even while they change their grammar to match the expectations of the target language. I wonder how much these kinds of potential mismatches contribute to misunderstandings? And what does this have to do with Amy Tan? I didn’t know if I’d get back to the rest of the paragraph! But, now I will. Tan continues:

To listen to my mother speak English, one might think she has no concept of past or future, that she doesn’t see the difference between singular and plural, that she is gender lind because she refers to my husband as “she.” If one were not careful, one might also generalize, from how my mother talks, that all Chinese people take a circumlocutory route to get to the point…I worry that the dominant society may see Chinese people from a limited– and limiting– perspective.


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