Linguistic Connection and Bias in Global Society
Language is an essential part of human expression – influencing the way we think and perceive others. One aspect of the translation panel from Thursday’s plenary lecture that was particularly interesting to me was the idea of assumptions in radical translation and the potential ignorance of social nuance through misunderstandings. During Professor Jankovic’s segment of the lecture, I was struck by the question “Why should speakers of another language think with your perspective?” For example, when radically translating a phrase, why would we assume that the language spoken has the same concept of nouns or personal property as our own linguistic background? This connects to the ideas expressed in the film Arrival, when the linguists are forced to ignore assumptions about the linear nature of their perception of time in order to understand the heptopods. I find this idea particularly interesting, especially in relation to the various preconceptions we bring to social interaction with others. Do linguistic barriers block true human connection, or do our own biases create this division? Today, American culture – music, film, and fashion – is increasingly becoming global culture. The Anglicization of words in languages causes some to fear the eventual dissolution of unique languages into a single conglomerate communication method. This presents an interesting question – would this facilitate greater connection between all people, or would our biases continue despite linguistic parity? In what ways does language influence culture and collective thought? Although I feel that our biases are somewhat connected to linguistic differences (for example in the immigration crisis at America’s southern border), I believe that language is often used as a justification of those biases, rather than their cause. How often is the exclusion of refugees justified by the statement that “they don’t even speak English?” How has our society devalued these people so greatly based upon their manner of communication? In what ways do our perceptions of someone who only speaks Spanish differ from someone whose only language is French or German? These comparisons demonstrate the fact that biases other than language contribute to our judgement of others. Through greater understanding of others – whether by respectful connection through communication in another language or non-judgmental linguistic assistance – I feel that language can become a tool for connection across cultures, rather than a dividing line.
In revisiting this post with knowledge from later studies through the Humanities course, I find my initial confusion slightly lessened, although I have yet to define how language can truly become a tool for connection. Dr. Wills’s unit, specifically the ideas expressed in “Whiteness as Property” by Cheryl L. Harris, spoke to my thoughts on the connection between linguistic definition and belief. When depicting the life of her grandmother, Harris explains the social and psychological impact of the term “passing.” The sheer fact that Harris’s grandmother had to conceal her identity in order to receive a job for which she was qualified is a striking reflection on American society. With the inclusion of the term’s meaning, however, the pervasive nature of racism’s impact on African American people is clear. To quote Harris,
She was transgressing boundaries, crossing borders, spinning on margins, traveling between dualities of Manichean space, rigidly bifurcated into light/dark, good/ bad, white/Black. No longer immediately identifiable as “Lula’s daughter,” she could thus enter the white world, albeit on a false passport, not merely passing, but trespassing.“Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl L. Harris, pp. 1711.
This quotation demonstrates the divisions created by linguistic biases in society – without a term to define “passing,” one could easily see the ridiculousness of a society in which an intelligent and successful woman was unable to work alongside her equally- or even less-qualified peers due to the concentration of melanin in her skin cells. The shorthand of “passing,” however, creates an entirely different narrative. Now, she is hiding, sneaking, stealing something that does not rightfully belong to her – “passing” on her resemblance to those who are deemed deserving of the position. Through my further exploration through the readings of the Humanities course, the terrifying implications of linguistic bias have become even more fully visible.