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September 13, 2011

Strangely enough, I’ve been spending a lot of time with people who don’t speak the same language as me.

This has given me a bit of time to muse on the nature of language as it pertains to consciousness. I remember, seven years ago on a class trip to Spain, I had gotten so engrossed in the Spanish language that I had a dream entirely in Spanish. Sometimes I can recall bits and pieces of my high school Spanish that I don’t have to ‘think’ about, that come about as naturally to me as English does.

Whenever one of my Vietnamese students speaks to me in English, I think about what they’re thinking about. If they have to parse each sentence through to English before they say it, and how naturally it comes to them. The idea that they think in Vietnamese, at least as much as I think in English, is both shocking and sobering. It’s an entirely new paradigm of consciousness, but at the same time, it stresses how engrained we all our in our own psyches: of course I would think everybody thinks in English.

In a very small way, recognizing that Vietnamese people think in Vietnamese helps me break out of my English-defined worldview. It’s a kind of linguistic empathy, to begin to recognize how foreign my language is, and to begin to understand the challenges that my students will face as I teach to them.

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