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Becoming a World Citizen - Part 2

Updated: Mar 25

So global citizenship may be the goal we're heading for, but how on earth do we get there?


In the first part of this series, we talked about the idea of developing a world perspective, in the words of Dr King. Uttering “Hey man, I’m a citizen of the world” is no longer the exclusive preserve of blissed-out hippies. It’s a phrase that needs to be rescued from the realm of cliché and transformed into a challenging reality that we can all access, cultivate, and more importantly, practise.


And because I’m speaking here to people who know foreign languages – whether in the translation goldfish bowl, or more broadly, those who are bilingual by accident of birth, as well as those who have upped sticks and not only moved to different parts of the world but actively engaged with the places where they have landed – let’s explore how languages provide a first key to that reality.


Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash


It’s a truism to say that having a second language gives you a second set of insights into the world. But how does this subtle process takes place?


Language frames our world: as English speakers we point at a furry animal and call it a “cat”. The very fact of learning in Lesson 1 of your second language that in other parts of the world, this is not a cat but un chat, ein Katz or un gato, (not to mention a 猫 or a বিড়াল) begins to tweak and bend that frame, to push it to its limits, and ultimately to wreck it, so that you have no choice but to build new frames for your new understanding of the world.


And that’s just names of things. When you venture further into the terrain of foreign languages, you learn that:

  • things that you always considered “neuter” (if you gave the matter any thought at all) can also be “masculine” or “feminine” in other languages;

  • adjectives behave in different and unpredictable ways depending on that gender; and

  • verbs adopt all sorts of weird and wonderful forms for reasons that in themselves differ from language to language.

Along the way you note with curiosity that you yourself subtly change in different languages and almost morph into someone else, in your body language, and even your outlook on the world. 

These changes can be more or less easy to accept in languages close to your own, but by the time you venture into the distant realms of Arabic, Bengali or Chinese, with their different scripts, sounds and syntax, all your certainties about how the world writes, speaks and sounds have crumbled into dust.


However, once beyond the initial confusion, you realise the potential for liberation.

Because what you’ve learned on the journey are that there are infinite ways of looking at the same world. That the lenses you’ve always worn are just one option, and that there are as many other frames available as there are on the wall of your average optician’s.


The four walls into which you were born have disintegrated, at least on a linguistic level, and you’re looking at endless universes of difference. And there lies your first glimpse of world citizenship.


The next challenge is to take that insight as you travel the globe, or meet people from all over the globe on your doorstep, and apply it to cultures, to attitudes to life, to beliefs and values that are no less varied and infinite than ways of linguistic expression. And to intuit that there too, the specs through which you’ve always gazed have their limits.


In the next piece in this four-part series, I’ll reveal how a strange visit to a German sauna, hosting a bunch of inquisitive Chinese students in my flat, buying a cake in a Czech café and turning up late for an Eritrean coffee ceremony all turned into useful milestones on my journey from a highly conditioned understanding of the world towards a much more unfettered vision – one that’s still expanding with each passing day.


Stay tuned!


Translations



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8 Comments


This is my favorite post! I love that you talked about our language learning process and our journey to understand other cultures and countries because of that we are translators, interpreters, and language teacher to share our wonderful experience. Keep up the good job Andrew! See you.

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Thanks Oscar! Glad you liked it!

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Love this! Especially:

The four walls into which you were born have disintegrated, at least on a linguistic level, and you’re looking at endless universes of difference. And there lies your first glimpse of world citizenship.”

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Thank you Claudia!

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"However, once beyond the initial confusion, you realise the potential for liberation." I love that sentence! Of course, as Yuna wrote, you have to be open-minded and willing to experience and enjoy that feeling. 🙂

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Absolutely, because plenty of people steer clear of the confusion and run for the hills!

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Yes, that flexibility and open-mindedness is key when you get started. And venturing into non-Indo-European languages is a real treat when it comes to having your preconceptions challenged :))

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I wholehartedly agree. It also takes a special type of person to go beyond "too difficult" or "what's this stupid grammar" when learning the new thought processes needed to master a new language and culture. I'm looking forward to venturing into the world of non indo-european language branches soon, I expect to see the world in a whole new light.

...And German saunas are indeed a shock to the system for most foreigners :D

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