“Je suis excitée!” I unknowingly exclaimed in French class one day. The blush of embarrassment that followed only came due to my sudden revelation of my linguistic faux pas. Faux pas, which in French translates directly as “wrong step,” was the only way to describe my mistake that day. Although the literal translation of excitée is excited, that is not what it means to the French. Rather, it translates roughly as “I am sexually aroused.” That is certainly not what I meant to say about my upcoming Christmas vacation to my professor and classmates. Fortunately for me, I made this mistake in the confines of my American classroom. But imagine if I had made such a linguistic error during my time abroad in France. Ah…j’imagine que les hommes voudraient aimer ça! This could have been the difference between me returning unscathed by French men versus the alternative.
Although perhaps a silly example, it nevertheless makes the point. As we learn new languages, it takes much time and devotion to master the true meanings of words, sentences, and especially analogies and sayings. For instance, the first time someone said to me “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre,” which translates as “You can’t have the butter and the money from the butter,” I kept thinking, “Why are we talking about butter?” Well, as you have probably figured out, it simply means the same as our popular phrase, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Leave it to the French to use butter in their analogies. And as for the cake, if you have ever tasted French cake, you know why they do not use our analogy. Nobody wants to have that cake or eat it. But I digress.
I was encouraged to find a recent featured story on NPR about a woman with her Ph.D. in linguistics, Deborah Fallows, discussing the painstaking process of learning Chinese. Fallows discussing her hilarious yet frustrating journey of learning the various tones in Chinese. As one who has attempted to learn a few Chinese words from her boyfriend, I can attest to the difficulty of this task. Although he may be differentiating sounds, I cannot audibly detect them. The psychologist in me is both discouraged and encouraged to know that I will never be able to hear these tonal differences but I can train myself to say them. Why is this the case? Well, during the cooing stage (first several months of life), infants can discriminate between all phonemes (smallest unit of sound), not just those of their own language (Sternberg, 2009). For instance, during the cooing stage both Japanese and American infants can distinguish between the sounds of /l/ and /r/ phonemes. However, by one year of age, Japanese infants can no longer distinguish these sounds because they are not used in their native language (Eimas, 1985; Tsushima et al., 1994). Despite my best attempts, I will never be able to fully distinguish certain sounds.
So we are, in essence, culturally limited by our biological limitations. It is an interesting play between biology, environment, and culture. How do we deal with a biological inability to fully overcome our environment? We adapt. It is still amazing to me that you can train yourself to make certain sounds, even if you cannot distinguish them yourself. So it seems it is not as the French say, “Impossible n’est pas français,” or “Impossible is not French.” This means the same as our phrase, “There is no such word as ‘can’t’ .” In other words, there are in fact some limitations to what our minds can do. There are fewer limits, however, to how we mentally adapt to these situations. Or, maybe it truly is as the French say, “Impossible is not French.” The rest of us humans, well, we aren’t French and therefore must be the limiting factor.
Eimas, P.D. (1985). The perception of speech in early infancy. Scientific American, 252, 46-52.
Sternberg, R.J. (2009). Cognitive psychology. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.
Tsushima, T., Takizawa, O., Saski, M., Siraki, S., Nishi, S., Kohno, M., et al. (1994). Discrimination of English /r-l/ and /w-y/ by Japanese infants at 6-12 months: Language specific developmental changes in speech perception abilities. Paper presented at International Conference on Spoken Language Processing, 4. Yokohama, Japan.