Saturday, October 16, 2010

Language Assimilation and the Interpretation of Signs

While watching a presentation in class the other day, I was distracted by a sign in the background of a photograph. There was a sign in Chinese characters running down the side of a building. Now I knew that they were Chinese, because the photo was from the edge of China-town, but I found myself first translating it to Japanese before English. I am wholly unfamiliar with the Chinese language but because of the Japanese adoption of Chinese characters, it is possible for me to understand some things in written form. This made me think about a recent article by Lera Boroditsky on how language affects your perception of the world. However, I am more interested in discovering how individuals speaking more than one language interpret the literal signs around them.

New York is a city of approximately 8.4 million people. Out of that, according to a study from Baruch College, 3.9 million inhabitants reportedly speak only English, leaving the majority of the population bi- or multi-lingual (or possibly mono-lingual without English, but this demographic was not mentioned in the data). Of the multiple language speakers, how many use an intermediary language when translating from English to their native language? This might especially apply to individuals from countries with an official language and numerous 'tribal' languages, especially when English is the least familiar of the individual's known languages.

My apartment is near a part of Harlem where there is a large community of Francophone West Africans. Walking down 125th Street you can hear many unfamiliar languages as well as a thick undercurrent of African French. For many, English is the third, fourth, or even fifth language they have had to learn in their lifetimes. What happens in these individual's minds when they are presented with an English word with which they are unfamiliar? Do those who are fluent, or simply familiar with, multiple languages have non-linear methods of translating when the target information has similarities with a tertiary language that it doesn't share with the first language?

Take the word 'bank' for example. In French it is banque, similar in both spelling and pronunciation. In my hypothetical tribal language there would be another word or description for bank that has little or no similarity to either language. It would make sense that this individual encountering a sign for a bank for the first time would utilize the French and English similarities to make a guess at the meaning, rather than simply try to decipher it directly. But what about the image created in the individual's mind? Does it go through a similar transition? For me this brings to mind the notion of the signifier and signified. A signifier in one language may or may not create the same signified image in an individual's mind as a second language. If this is true, how are the images reconciled?

In my own language study I have noticed an interesting transition. When I first began to learn Japanese, I had no signified for words such as ginkoo (bank) and had to think of the English equivalent before I could picture it. As time went on, however, there was a second image that came up when I heard the word, that of a specific banking institution. It was not the same image that came to mind when the word 'bank' was spoken. It existed as its own entity. After much more time had passed, and without my noticing the shift, both my image of ginkoo and 'bank' fused to become a single signified image. So it is now possible for me to look at a sign in Chinese (knowing it is Chinese) and gain the same image I would if it read simply 'bank', without previously knowing the word in Chinese.

What I really want to know is if this is an idiosyncratic method or if multi-lingual individuals have a similar means of language/image assimilation. Although, with at least 4.5 million fellows in the city, I am fairly certain I am not alone.

Saussure, F. - Lectures on General Linguistics
New York City Department of City Planning - 2009 Census
Baruch College - Weissman Center for International Business Zicklin School of Business, NYCdata

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