When I, as a particularly lost 15 year old, lived in Japan, I didn’t really understand what was going on. No, that’s an understatement – I had no flipping idea. I was the only one who spoke English within a two hour radius, and my Japanese was very… basic. I could read the alphabet, knew a few phrases, had a general idea of the order of words within a basic sentence, and… That. Was. It.
So I missed a lot. I did a lot of listening. But as I got slightly better at the language and at figuring out the culture that went with it (don’t ever let anyone tell you that culture and language aren’t intertwined. If they believe that they’re idiots), I realised that I was participating in conversation when I only understood about 10% of the words being used.
Yep. 10%. I was only picking up on every 10th word, but I was still conversing, I was still participating in day to day life.
There are several reasons this was possible. Firstly, a lot of our communication is non-verbal. That definitely helped – I got very good at figuring out what people meant rather than what they were saying. I also realised that if you understood the context of a conversation, and the general gist of the sentence (say, one or two key words), then you could generally guess the rest.
I can’t do this in English however. If I’m talking to my parents (who live out in whoop-whoop), and because of the crappy reception I miss one word my dad says, I’ll have to get him to repeat the whole sentence. Not so in Japanese.
I find this particularly interesting because I think it shows how much socialisation goes into both how we construct and receive language, and how we interpret it. We try to manipulate that as writers – we write our hero slamming the phone down instead of saying “he was angry” (to give a well worn example). But just because we write something, and we have a way we intend it to be understood, doesn’t mean the person at the other end will interpret it that way.
Similarly, words only mean what they mean as long as the reality of them reflects it. For example if I was to ask someone if they wanted ice-cream, and when they said yes, pinched them, it wouldn’t take long before they started to associate the word “ice-cream” with “pinch.” It doesn’t matter if I continue to call it ice-cream until the cows come home – in their mind, in this circumstance, I am talking about pinching them.
I think my point is that language is powerful, but it is only as powerful as what it’s representing. You can write flowery speeches that paint things in a good light forever and a day, but unless anyone actually believes in what you’re saying, they won’t be “hearing” the words you’re saying, they’ll be hearing the ones you mean. As writers then, I think, it’s important to choose our words carefully. Because we are constructing worlds with these words,and there’s not other evidence or a real life example to tell people what we actually mean. What we put on the paper is it.
So it’s important to get it right.
Feature image taken from flickr, attributed to Eric Fisher