SBCC student explains importance of linguistics

The Channels Opinion Pages | STAFF COLUMN

Jefferson Beckham, Channels Staff

Picture yourself sitting in Spanish class, hearing the teacher drone on about how to conjugate various verb forms.

You either might be tempted to fall asleep, given that the teacher’s going over it for the umpteenth time, or you might be confused as to how Spanish speakers have separate conjugations for each person and number. Well, what if I told you that Spanish speakers can’t believe how easy English conjugation is, and are tempted to drop he, she, and it? This is linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, at work.

In a nutshell, the hypothesis states that one’s first language influences the way one thinks. By no means do these constraints wholly determine how one thinks – otherwise people could not be bilingual. Rather, it forces people to think outside the box when learning other languages – “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality,” Edward Sapir wrote.

Here at City College we have many students enrolling from all around the globe, mostly from places where English is not commonly spoken, not even as a lingua franca. With linguistic relativity kept in mind, they might have difficulties keeping up a conversation with someone from the U.S.

Consider the following: “Horse’my town’tae went’mesees. Someone him took’methinks. Me help’y’ll-no him findto?”

Confused? Well, it’s only English vocabulary – just using Quechua grammar. With normal English grammar, this says: “I saw my horse going into town. I think someone took him. Wouldn’t you help me find him?”

Although, in my opinion, comparing English to Quechua doesn’t work too well – Quechua, even before Spanish conquest, is somewhat like an Indo-European language.

It’s given that human languages around the world don’t use similar structures. English is a language without much case declension and very simple verb conjugation. Despite it being a Germanic language, English has borrowings from French, Latin, Greek, and various languages from around the world, especially from where England has set up colonies. I suspect that English is actually a creole, which is simply a grammatically simplified form of a language.

On the other hand, Quechua has been around for centuries with little evolution other than borrowing a bunch of vocabulary from Spanish. It consequently retains a much more complex, if notably regular, grammar.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a two-way street. English speakers might be overwhelmed with Quechua’s complexity, but Quechua speakers might be overwhelmed by the surprising simplicity of English.

Bottom line, be gentle with those who can’t speak English very well. If you were studying in their countries, you might not do so well either.