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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Speaking of language

April 1, 2009

Mahmoud Sadrai writes Persian on a dry erase board.

Mahmoud Sadrai is an instructor of Persian and linguistics at the U. The Persian language, written from right to left, does not always translate to English, thanks to both linguistic and cultural differences.

Photo: Cameron Wittig

At the U, nearly 40 language options provide a wealth of cultural opportunity

By Judy Woodward

It's your first visit to the home of your new Iranian acquaintance and you can't wait to try some of that terrific rose-water-infused cuisine you've heard about. Politely, your host offers you something to eat. You've been studying your Persian dictionary for just this moment, and you're ready. "Wow, thanks," you say in Farsi, smiling broadly in the interests of international understanding. "I'm starving!"

Congratulations. You've just revealed yourself to be a social barbarian, completely unversed in the elaborate rituals of  taarof, the Persian social code that governs virtually every aspect of behavior in the highly nuanced world of Iranian hospitality.

"A different language is not just another vocabulary; it's a different vision of life," says Mahmoud Sadrai, instructor of Persian and linguistics. As a teacher of Persian, Sadrai believes that his job is to teach the culture as well as the vocabulary.

Persian is just one of the nearly 40 languages taught at the University of Minnesota. Every one of them holds the promise of introducing a new world and a fresh perspective on life, but only if the learner understands one critical point: When it comes to learning a language, your grasp of grammar may be impressive, your vocabulary large, and your accent native-like, but, if you don't understand cultural practices like  taarof, you haven't learned the subject.

Sadrai defines  taarof as an elaborate "system of politeness strategies." He explains the social misstep involved in accepting food too quickly. "In Persian culture, you are obligated to offer food," he says, but it's also rude to accept too quickly. "You can't accept until the third offer," he says. A brash American might note inwardly at that point that the food is getting cold, but he would be missing the point. Sadrai says, "Even though you know your position [in the social hierarchy] you must go through the ritual of self-effacement. Part of  taarof is saving face, and allowing others to save face."

An all-encompassing system that covers every social encounter,  taarof explains why, for example, it might take an hour to bid your Iranian host a polite farewell. Noting that  taarof helps define and enforce social hierarchies, Sadrai says, "It's a way of giving deference, but the politeness need not be sincere."

Widening the lens

There are all kinds of reasons to learn a language, says Elaine Tarone, director of the University's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA). Studies show, for example, that children in language immersion programs have greater cognitive flexibility and are more creative.

She also believes, though, that as Americans, we simply shortchange ourselves if we cling to our monolingual culture. "We have a limited view of being human if we see things through only one cultural lens," says Tarone, a Distinguished University Teaching Professor of Second Language Studies. "We Americans value freedom, yet we [risk] locking ourselves into one way of seeing the world."

Beyond mastering grammar and vocabulary, real communication depends on learning what she calls the "pragmatics" of a language. "As you become more proficient in a language, the knowledge of the culture becomes more important," Tarone says. "In fact, the two are so interrelated that you can't assess proficiency without talking about what [students] know about culture."

Say, for example, you need to apologize for a minor social blunder. To do that, a student has to understand not just words and sentence structure, but also the cultural nuances and the social standing of those who may have been offended. "You have to suit the language of apology to the degree of offense ... [and] to use the language at that advanced level, you need to know the culture," she says.

But acquiring a level of proficiency that ensures cultural as well as linguistic competence is no easy matter. Tarone points out that there are times when a student's native culture can consciously or unconsciously sabotage the learning process. Take the delicate matter of what Western society defines as plagiarism. American students are raised to be individualists, accustomed from their earliest school days to reformulate and synthesize assigned reading "in their own words."

Not so for students from some Asian cultures, says Tarone. "They may come from a culture where the learning model is to memorize from the experts," she explains. "They say, 'I am not worthy to change this expert's words.'" For these students, putting something in their own words is not the sign of healthy engagement with the subject matter, but the mark of a presumptuous usurpation of scholarly authority.

Such difficulties are not confined to Asian students striving to master English. Tomoko Hoogenboom, who was a lecturer and lead teacher in the U's Japanese program in Asian Languages and Literatures last year, knows her American students have extra difficulty mastering the elaborate forms of  keigo, the Japanese system of honorifics used to establish formal social relationships. "In Japanese culture," she says, "there are so many ways of politeness. You need to find out where you belong."

Every public encounter in Japanese involves establishing oneself as a member of an in-group or an out-group, says Hoogenboom, and using specific language prescribed for each role. She explains that so apparently simple an exchange as entering an office and asking to speak to the boss can involve an exhausting linguistic calculus for those not comfortable in the intricacies of  keigo.

The person who enters the office makes it clear that he or she is a member of the "out-group" by referring to the boss with special honorific forms. The staffer to whom the question is addressed must underscore his or her own "in-group" status by referring to the boss in what Hoogenboom calls "extra-modest" language.

Add to this ritual the fact that there are separate language forms reserved for men and women, and it's no wonder that Hoogenboom has her teaching work cut out for her.

Cultural discomfort can also result when Arabic and American social codes conflict, says Hisham Khalek, director of the Arabic Instruction Program in the Department of African-American and African Studies. Khalek, who has just published a new Arabic curriculum,  Exploring Arabic, notes that Arabic attitudes toward social discourse go back to nomadic Bedouin life. "A visitor to the tribe was received for three days before he was asked his purpose," he says. By conducting general conversation with the stranger, tribesmen could assess character and behavior before the purpose of the visit was raised.

According to Khalek, that leisurely approach still prevails in Arabic business circles, to the frequent incomprehension of straight-to-the-point Americans: "If you have only an hour for lunch with an Arab businessman, the first 45 minutes will have nothing to do with business."

Artifact vs. organic

A scholar who takes a somewhat different view is associate professor of English David Treuer, a McKnight Land-Grant professor, novelist, and translator of texts from his native Ojibwe.

"I'm leery of facile descriptions of how cultures work," Treuer says. "Languages are perfectly capable of expressing what they need to." He's conscious of the tenuous existence of Indian languages like Ojibwe, which is losing native speakers as the inevitable passage of time combines with the powerful lure of American popular culture.

"I work against the idea of seeing Ojibwe as an ancient language," says Treuer. "That shoves it into a museum intellectually. I think of it as vibrant, important, and capable of communicating everything. [But] Ojibwe is in danger of dying out. When people talk about culture in regard to a dying language [they're saying] 'Language is a diorama that shows us how life was.'"

"There are lots of things in a culture," he adds. "Kinship, ceremony, and history, but language is the most important. In the Ojibwe context, it links and connects all those other things together. Language provides a sense of solidarity."

Still, Treuer finds himself mildly impatient with the whole notion of capturing the essence of a culture in any neat formulation.

"As a novelist, I'm much more interested in nuance than in general meaning," he says. As a translator, he believes his job is to "communicate the particularities of a certain text or speech. ... Translation from Ojibwe is not a matter of translating cultural essence. Cultures are anti-essential. A text is fixed. It stops moving. Cultures are complicated, varied—and always in flux."

Excerpted from Reach, winter 2009, the magazine of the College of Liberal Arts.