Wittgenstein hypothesised that language dictates our experience of the world. In simple terms (because his ideas are quite complex and beyond the scope of this blog post) he argued that if you don’t have words to describe an experience, then that experience doesn’t exist.
Say you stub your toe.
You’ll feel pain, right?
But what if you’d never heard of pain? What would you feel?
Wittgenstein would have argued that since you’d never heard of the word for pain, then what you would feel when you stubbed your toe couldn’t be pain. Because without the words to describe the experience, the experience would not be able to be formulated in your mind.
That being said, there are other ways of communicating besides words. Wittgenstein himself seemed to realise that later in his career, when he revised his earlier ideas to be less restrictive.
Instead of words, you could have symbols in your head, or sounds, or gestures. There are a million and one ways to experience and articulate the world around us. When we’re young, we learn to negotiate meaning with others; as our intelligence and experience grows, so does our vocabulary – whatever form that may take.
Wittgenstein’s ideas become particularly pertinent, to me at least, when it comes to learning new languages.
When we’re learning a new language, we’re relearning the words for items and ideas. We may encounter new ideas or new concepts that don’t exist in our language. In Dutch, for example, there’s gezellig, which means a kind of homeliness and comfort that comes from Dutch culture. That’s not really a concept that exists in English – I mean, it exists, but we need more words to articulate it. The same goes for the German word schadenfreude, which means to take pleasure in other people’s misfortune.
When we learn a new language, we’re learning how to speak the world around us into existence.
The problem is that, if you’re an average person and not one of those three-months-to-fluency whizzkids, you’re going to spend a lot of time relearning the basics.
Apple = appel
Bicycle = fiets
Morning = morgen
That means that you’ll spend a good amount of time unable to communicate beyond the bare essentials. That happened to me when I was sixteen. I travelled to Paris with two years of high school French under my belt and realised that I didn’t have the vocabulary to order a stamp.
It’s happening to me again, now, as I try to negotiate the intricacies of the Dutch language.
I’m fairly articulate in my native language – I can make myself understood to pretty much anyone. But if I have to switch to Dutch, I’m a simpleton.
I can’t be funny in Dutch because I don’t have the words to tell the punchline.
I can’t be clever in Dutch because all the words I know are basic vocabulary words from Duolingo.
It’s frustrating, being so hampered. Wittgenstein would say that my experience of the world has been limited because I don’t have the words to articulate what I’m thinking and feeling.
That’s true, in a way. If someone asks me how I am, I can only respond with ‘goede’ because I don’t know the words for ‘I’ve been better’ or ‘Honestly, I’m just glad to be out of bed today.’ Without the ability to articulate what I’m thinking, I feel myself stunted and cut off from my own intelligence.
Simply put: I don’t like the early stages of language learning where I stumble around like a baby giraffe who doesn’t know what legs are. I wish that I didn’t feel so stupid when I switch out of my native tongue – especially when the Dutch people around me seem to have no problem switching out of theirs.
I don’t like learning new languages. I like knowing new languages. But unfortunately, you can’t have one without the other.