Breaking free from the one-word curse

An interesting but little remarked-upon phenomenon occurs when most people try to learn a foreign language. In an attempt to make learning easier for ourselves, we begin to think of all languages as having one word for everything.

We ask each other, “What’s the word for ‘apple’ in Spanish?” or “Which word means ‘horse’ in Japanese?” We learn our languages the way we learn math problems. Two plus two equals four, and nothing else. There is only one correct answer for a typical math problem, and there is only one appropriate way to say ‘marriage’ or ‘insomnia’ in German.

It’s understandable why we do this. We try to simplify the already difficult task of learning a new language. It is a natural human tendency to generalize about something unfamiliar and new to us until slowly, over time, subtleties and gray areas emerge and become clear. Our common approach to language is not only a reflection of how we humans view different cultures and tongues, but also how we view other people. We always have room for tolerating and understanding contradictions in ourselves, but rarely in others.

Anyone who has ever studied math and slogged through the minimum number of classes required in school knows that there are math problems where more than one answer is possible. With languages, this is also true. In any language, there can easily be multiple choices for how to say a word or phrase and nearly infinite combinations for expressing sentences and longer patterns of speech.
A simple word like “happy,” for example, can have similar expressions such as “pleased,” “overjoyed,” “satisfied,” “ecstatic,” “over the moon” and so on. “I want to go home” can be “I would like to leave,” “I need to be back at my house” and so on ad infinitum. The old urban legend that there are over 200 words for “camel” in Arabic is false, but spend enough time studying any language, and its native speakers can introduce you to examples of plenty of words that are not restricted to just one translation.

When we handle a foreign language, we have to let go of feelings of impatience or disdain toward the language and understand that every culture possesses complexities and twists of its own, making it as mysterious and fascinating as our native culture. Instead of seeing languages as maddening obstacles, it is imperative that we consider that all nations have their own versions of slang, profanity, jargon, low and high culture, jokes and everything that makes life simultaneously frustrating and entertaining.

It is a sad fact of human nature that we only see ourselves as endlessly diverse and interesting special snowflakes that no one could ever hope to comprehend, while all the people around us can be reduced and analyzed with a bit of pop psychology. The truth is that we are all multifaceted and have hidden depths few can ever plunge into. We build up walls around our psyches while insisting that no one else has the same impenetrable walls.

Travel writer Rick Steves explored these obvious yet concealed differences in his book, Travel as a Political Act. In over three decades of travel through much of Europe, Steves came to realize that for every national hero, inspirational story or special quality Americans claim to possess, other countries had their own versions and counterparts.
“I discovered that for every Paul Revere or Nathaniel Hale, they were nothing special, since every country had their own heroes,” wrote Steves, emphasizing the main message of his book and encouraging readers to shed blinkered visions of other cultures.

The ultimate goal of studying any language and culture should be to view that culture as similarly complex to one’s own, instead of a cartoonish image where there is only one accurate representation for a word, custom or behavior. It is totally conceivable that another country may have its own equivalents of John Steinbeck, Tina Fey, Kobe Bryant or a myriad of other luminaries.

A language, instead of being a stiff and unchanging collection of unpronounceable words that one strings together slowly, is a constantly changing and wriggling entity, evolving over time. Our failure to realize this keeps us in the dark about everyone who is not us and any society that we do not inhabit.