I love languages. Seriously! Here is a list of the languages I have worked on so far (in the order of acquaintance):
German (native, different dialects), English (fluent), French (good/once fluent), Latin (reading), Russian (basic), Spanish (basic), Hindi and Urdu (good/Hindi once fluent), Sanskrit (reading), Ancient Greek (intermediate), Portuguese (fairly good), Norwegian (fairly good), Danish (fairly good), Dutch (basic), … (there are others, but I won’t list them before I have worked on them some more).
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I try to pick up more languages. If you are like me, Duolingo is one of your favorite apps (if you use it, too, find and add me: theraja). Whenever I travel abroad, I cannot but buy the best dictionary and the best grammar I can find and then throw myself into the project of trying to learn as much about the local language as possible. If traveling in Poland or the Czech Republic, say, you would never see me order a coffee in German or English. It really makes my day if I remain unrecognized as a foreigner while trying to order in the local vernacular or if trouble arises only once people respond in ways I did not anticipate. For me, learning new languages is a fun and exciting challenge. However, there is more to it than that.
My philosophical interest in the question how beliefs shape our experience, my fascination with Iris Murdoch’s novels and her philosophical work that centers on the notion of love as just attention, and my interest in Jay Garfield’s, Maria Heim’s, and Buddhaghosa’s understanding of Buddhist Ethics as providing a host of techniques intended to yield a transformation of experience – all of these are deeply connected… not just with one another, but also with my views about teaching and with my deep love for languages.
As for teaching, as I point out in my teaching statement, one of my goals is to develop and subsequently integrate more and more tools into my teaching that target different student groups – different types of learners, students from different backgrounds, and with different interests. Like everyone else, students are individuals – they differ from one another and from me. If I want to respect such differences, treat students fairly, justly, and respectfully, the challenge is to try and present the material in various ways so as to give as many of them the chance to relate to it as possible.
As for languages, consider the following questions: How do we characterize the world and our role in it, what imagery do we use, what metaphors do we employ, what formulations ring true to us, what phrases do we feel at home with, and which words do we have at our disposal – or, interestingly, lack – as we conceptualize both what we see and those with whom we interact? The answers to all of these questions deeply depend on our language. Words, to be meaningful, must be related to and associated with other words and sentences in which they figure. They play their role as parts of an intricate network of meaning, in whose rich and delicate texture beliefs, values, emotions, visions, hopes, and desires are inextricably intertwined. As we try to make sense of the world and the individuals that populate it, the network that at least partly constitutes the meanings of the words we use, may assume an increasingly idiosyncratic shape, one that we rely on and continually modify in response to our experience and our interaction with others, thus shaping and reshaping our understanding, both of the world and of who we and others are.
As we engage in this process, we may adopt and modify a variety of both individual and socio-cultural narratives. This gives rise to a process of transformation that, again, is deeply informed by our interactions with others. How do other speakers use words? In which contexts? What does their using them in that particular way mean to them? And what does this in turn say about how they understand the world and who they take themselves and others to be? Seeking to answer these questions, I think, is one of the most profound ways in which human beings can connect. On the individual level, connecting to others can take the form of paying close and just attention to how they use language to characterize their circumstances and their options for action. Generally, engaging in just attention – attention, that is, that does justice to who the other truly is – is an exercise of love, as Iris Murdoch puts it. As we see others lovingly, we may see them more realistically. If we succeed in imagining what the world looks like to them, we gain a deeper understanding of who they are and why they act as they do. Such understanding inevitably alters the way we ourselves evaluatively characterize our own options for action, especially our options for responding to who and what we may now be able to see more clearly. Looking at others lovingly, listening to their words, imagining realistically how these may function in their background views, and thus seeing things and actions through the lens provided by how others evaluatively characterize things yields a kind of understanding that, if things go well, opens up their world to us. By the same token, it transforms and enriches ours.
So construed, looking at others justly is an exercise of love which, perhaps, is at least partly motivated by our human desire to connect to others. My fascination with learning languages, too, springs from that same desire. Everyone who has done at least some traveling to foreign countries knows what difference it makes to one’s experience if one is able to pick up even just a couple of phrases of the local language. Here is a memorable example: Once, on a train ride through rural India, a bunch of young boys dressed in school uniforms stormed into the train compartment I was traveling in. Some of them took a seat on my berth, or the one on the opposite side of the compartment, some climbed onto the upper berths, huddling together, eyeing me, the foreigner, interested, but with cautious suspicion. They began to debate among themselves whose English might be good enough to address me, who would get to ask me questions, and which ones. They were quite excited, but also shy. Finally, I asked them in Hindi what they’d like to know, indicating that I’d be more than happy to talk. The situation changed instantaneously and beautifully. For one, they immediately lost their shyness. Moreover, since there was no longer any need to channel the conversation through any particular person, or conduct it in a language some were not too comfortable with, everyone got to ask their questions. Accordingly, for the next hour or so, we had the most charming conversations about life in Germany, India, about food, soccer, cricket, flora and fauna, and about whatever else the boys wanted to know. Once we had reached their home village, they rushed out as quickly as they had appeared – and both they and I had learned a lot about what life was like for the respective other.
A similarly memorable experience, also in India, was a camel safari my wife and I went on in Jaisalmer. We both had had our reservations since we suspected that the entire safari was nothing but a tourist trap, and that the cameleers would probably be underpaid, exploited, and be treated with little respect by the travel agent. Sadly enough, as we talked to them in Hindi – their mastery of English was limited to a couple of phrases – this latter suspicion was more than confirmed. Yet talking to them allowed us to catch a glimpse of their world, what life was like for them, and what mattered to them. Being able to communicate made our safari more pleasant, both for us and for them, and getting to know them enabled us, in the end, to make a small contribution to their well-being, which, without knowing their language, we would hardly have been able to do.
Learning another person’s native language is – and is often appreciated as – a sign of respect for the ways in which others differ from us, contingently, but sometimes profoundly. Trying to pick up a new language makes and keeps one humble, as one will inevitable make mistakes. Respect and humility, I believe, are important virtues, especially in a globalized world in which we must understand not just the ways in which we all are the same, but also appreciate the (beauty in the) ways in which we differ. Respect and humility help us deemphasize the focus on, and lose the sense of special importance of, one’s own self. They allow us to see and learn from others and ultimately enable us to build relationships with them that are meaningful, lasting, and deeply satisfying.
To sum up, my fascination with language fits into the broader context of my philosophical interests. Accordingly, the idea of working in different countries across the world does not sound intimidating to me. Au contraire, doing that is something my family and I have so far enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, wherever our path may lead us next.