The Inuit and Yupik peoples of Alaska and Canada have 30 words for snow, explains the famous psychotherapist Robert Johnson in his 1993 book “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden.”
But Johnson cares about something far more important than snow. He notes that Sanskrit has 96 words for love, ancient Persian has 80 and English only one. For Johnson, the lack of “love” words reflects an overall loneliness in Western English-speaking countries. “Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling,” he explains.
You can take or leave Johnson’s theory — I have my doubts. Nevertheless, Johnson offers a critical insight into the power of language. He recognizes that the languages we speak are reflections of our environments and social norms. They are windows into customs, worldviews and the character of daily life across the globe.
I have had countless conversations with fellow first years about their eagerness to complete the language requirement as soon as possible. Many Yalies see the language requirement as a burden and a chore. Their attitude couldn’t be more wrong.
In learning new languages, we don’t just memorize verb tenses and basic conversation starters. We experience alternative ways of life and explore new forms of social interaction. We are able to bridge vast cultural gaps, meet new people and even make new friends.
Before coming to Yale, I attended a Jewish day school. Every year, I would be required to study Biblical and Modern Hebrew, pour over endless grammar rules and memorize long lists of vocabulary. But when I visited Israel, I only knew how to communicate with a portion of the population. I was cut off from the voices of millions of Arabic-speaking people by virtue of not sharing the same tongue. I realized that I wanted more.
The following summer, I resolved to attend an immersive language program to learn Arabic. Without knowing a word of the language, I threw myself into an environment where it was the only tool to communicate and interact. To say the least, the transition was not easy.
Thankfully, I met professor Ustetha Amani. Amani was my loving Arabic teacher, originally from Sudan. She was the first person in the program to take interest in my Jewish upbringing — I wore a yarmulke, or kippah, the whole time — and she asked me what it was like to learn Arabic having grown up speaking Hebrew.
In my then broken Arabic, I told her how meaningful it was that my knowledge of Hebrew made learning another Semitic language like Arabic so much easier. It was striking to me that the languages of two peoples long embroiled in conflict were so immensely similar. I would often recognize the meaning of Arabic words without ever learning them, simply by pronouncing in my head the corresponding Hebrew word.
During my next visit to Israel, I saw the country through different eyes. Being able to read street signs in Arabic and overhear conversations in the local grocery store or on the bus brought a world to life that had long felt foreign and inaccessible. When I traveled to Bethlehem through a program that provides Jewish students a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had the opportunity to stay overnight with a Palestinian family. Communicating with them in their own language was a way for me to begin the difficult and important process toward understanding their experience, toward making sense of their family history, their struggles, hopes and dreams.
The experience affirmed for me the full meaning of the old Italian maxim “traduttore, traditore” — “a translator is a traitor.” Translation prevents speakers from attaining the full intimacy of shared understanding. It betrays true meaning and original intent. In sharing language, we automatically erase barriers we didn’t even know existed.
Yale students often try to breeze through their language requirement. They place into L5 in a language they’ve been speaking since childhood and finish all their language studies at Yale by the second semester of their first year. Doing so is a mistake. Break your neck over those French conjugations and learn the Cyrillic alphabet. There’s far more to gain than just a credit and a half.
Gabriel Klapholz is a first year in Branford College. His column runs every other Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .