“To have a second language is to have a 2nd soul,” said Charlemagne. This week’s expert & polyglot Dr. Josep González highlights that each language serves as a window into a culture. With more windows comes more complexity and sophistication. You can become a more sophisticated thinker by mastering your language skills: avoid thinking in binary pairs; read history; and negotiate with philosophical discourse–recognizing what is fact vs. opinion. Ultimately, “language is the vehicle for authentic democracy.”


References & Links

Dr. Josep González & TFS Canada’s International School

Dr. Steven Pinker

Trevor Noah

Hélène Cixous and Death Dealing Binary Combinations

Linguistic Relativity and Grammatical Gender



Interview Transcript 

Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much for joining us, Josep. I really appreciate your time. I thought we should just start with the basics. What is language?

Dr. Josep González: Language is a lot of different things. I would describe language as a system of signs that we use for communication purposes. Language is made up of words. Words have meanings and they acquire connotations, depending on what other words they’re placed with. Words are linked through what we call syntax. Syntax is a way that words are put together in order to give meaning. A meaning of cause. A meaning of consequence. A meaning of goal. Finality,

AW:  Right. That reminds me of the book that was popular eats, shoots and leaves. And depending on where you put the punctuation, it had three different meanings.

JG: Yes. So think of a game of chess. The meaning of the word would be — the identity of each piece. By each piece, what are we talking about? Are we talking about pawns? Are we talking about queens? Syntax is the rules governing the way they move and interact with each other. Okay, for example, you know, obviously, a horse, queen, king, they move in different ways. You have a chessboard and you have the pieces, but you don’t know the rules. You cannot play chess. The same with language.

AW:  Nicely put. Okay, let’s move on then to multiple languages. I know that you personally are fluent in five languages (and I think you’re being humble there, because I know you have at least some mastery in other languages as well, including, for example, Latin) and you work as the head of a multi lingual international school. So clearly you are an advocate of multilingualism. Can you tell us what some of the main advantages or effects are of learning and conversing in multiple languages?

JG: The basic idea for me is that a language is always a window into a particular kind of culture. Language is not just a means of communication. Each language gives you a particular perspective on reality. It’s not just a means. It’s the way language actually structures your brain, structures your thinking, structures what do you think about reality. In certain languages, for example, there are as many as 20 different words to describe snow, right? And for them, it’s different kinds of things. It doesn’t make any sense to have 20 words for snow in a romance language like Spanish. Because obviously, you know, say in Spain, we see there’s snow in the Pyrenees and in a couple of other mountain ranges, but it’s not part of our everyday life. Because at the end of the day, language is a response to reality. And by reality, I mean the physical reality, but also our intellectual reality. And therefore, for example, nowadays in Japanese there is a particular word–when it’s hot and humid and sticky in the summer, there’s a particular word for it.  But that’s precisely because, Japan,  in the summer it’s not just 32’ or 35’.  It’s that plus the humidity factor. The humidity factor is going to mean that you feel more tired, so there is a particular word: “Mushi atsui”

AW:  “Mushi atsui”?

JG: That’s right. Yes. The relationship between  Japanese people and their environment means that there is a need for a particular word for which there is no need in Scotland.

AW:  Right. So what about back to the benefits though? Why would I consider sending my child to a school that teaches bilingual or multiple languages?

JG: I could stay at a very practical level and talk about the fact that speaking different languages, from the point of view of the job market, is extremely useful. Not just in Canada, but beyond Canada — for international affairs. Rather than staying at that level, I think I want to take it a little bit deeper and talk about the fact that languages shape your view of reality. And let me give you other examples in something that’s relatively basic and useful. In Wikipedia, the entry for the Plains of Abraham might be different in English and in French, because the historical meaning for Francophone Canadians and Anglophone Canadians is extremely different. By being able to read both entries, we might end up with a richer understanding of what that meant. Likewise, if we talk about a city like Jerusalem, presumably being able to read texts in Hebrew and in Arabic might give us a better understanding of the historical context, you know the history  of that city and understand its current makeup. And so I always think that language gives us a different perspective on the world and for me it’s extremely important.

AW:  As you were describing those effects, I was thinking that a lot of people travel for similar reasons. They travel to get a new perspective on the world, on themselves. Learning a language, it’s not the same. But it is , the same kind of pursuit of understanding international or cultural context.

JG: And I would say — I would claim that it’s a more profound way because sometimes when we go to other countries, take in a very superficial understanding of the country (in particular if we go to Cuba and we only go to a beach resort for example). I think that if you want to go deeper into it, the language is necessary because understanding reality is not just about understanding the physical reality of a country or a population or a culture. It’s about going deeper and seeing the historical construction that that particular culture has done of itself through language.  In the same way as understanding the art or, you know, the paintings the sculptures, the architecture, that gives you something, but the more complex concepts develop over time, for which language is absolutely central.

AW:  Interesting. I never thought of that. So traveling to a different culture, it’s more visual. Most of the things that you just listed there are more visual, and you can make your own interpretations about what you’re observing and even what you’re hearing. But you’re probably not hearing things that are in a language that you have command of. And then if you do have command of that language, you have, as you say, another window into that culture.

JG: You’re absolutely right. Language is a form of travel if you want to put it that way. If you learn Latin or Ancient Greek, you’re traveling to the minds of  a society that lived in that case in Europe and North Africa 2000 years ago, 2500 years ago. So you’re traveling in time by learning a particular language. And if you learn other languages like say Mandarin Chinese, or Japanese, or Arabic, or Hebrew, or Spanish or French, what you’re doing is traveling emotionally, rationally to the realm of a culture which is different from our …

So it is a form of travel. A form of human journey, if you wish to put it that way.

AW:  When I was doing my research, I found I was actually fascinated by grammatical gender. In English, nouns are neutral, they don’t have a gender associated with them. And that’s the case in in many languages, but in other languages, particularly the romance or Neo Latin languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French (which you are fluent in), objective nouns are either feminine or masculine, and it turns out that this has an effect on how people, as you say, have a different perspective in reality, right? There’s this professor named Lera Boroditsky at UC San Diego who did some research to understand how people speak — and the rules and the syntax of the language that they speak. How it affects their perspective. And when nouns such as bridges are masculine in that language, they refer to bridges as “strong” and “sturdy.” Whereas when they are feminine, they’re “elegant” and “beautiful.” So what about bilingual people? Would how they think about that tangible object change, depending on the language that they’re speaking at the time?

JG: I would say that by being bilingual or trilingual or multilingual — what happens is that you add another layer of complexity which makes you more sophisticated. I think… Because then you have to think,…

AW:  Did you hear that? That was a smack down. I only know one language he knows five!!!

JG: So knowing multiple languages … gives you more layers. And when you have more layers, it adds complexity to your understanding of the world. Or, to put it another way, you see the world as being more and more complex. As opposed to the given world, the world that is given to you by one language. So an example …

AW:  So does the word discerning fitting in here so somehow.

JG: Yes, yeah. You are more discerning because you have more information that you can draw on. Then you can draw your own conclusions. Yes. Multiple frameworks, multiple contexts. That’s right.  So let me talk about one particular example. It can be relatively superficial, if you wish. And then we can go to a deeper example. Something, which is not very pleasant to talk about, which is that our understanding of death is different in different languages. In some languages, it’s masculine. And in some languages, it is feminine.

AW:  Wow.

JG: So for example, let me give you an example of Latin languages, where the concept of death is feminine. The fact that death in romance languages is feminine gives us a sense of comfort.  You will find a huge amount of literature — I’m not talking religious literature at all. I’m talking about you know, poetry, all sorts of novels in which the figure of death and — it’s almost like a mother figure. Maternal.  Nurturing. And that is going to finally allow you to rest and to get away from the troubles of the world. Whereas I remember when I was little (or a teenager), it must have been some kind of American movie, in which death was personified by this man with the hood and a scythe. I didn’t understand…

AW:  Grim Reaper?

JG: Exactly. The Grim Reaper for me doesn’t exist. I mean, it’s not something that I was familiar with at that time. So that sign was lost on me and then it added another layer to my understanding of death. A layer which, in that case, is more ominous, is more threatening. So sometimes our view of something as fundamental as birth or death is also colored by the gender that that word has in that particular language.

AW:  Wow. Yeah, not just these tangible, relatively inconsequential things, like bridges and cars.

JG: No, and that’s why I’m saying that language ultimately is about reason. So the whole of the intellectual history of a people, of a nation, of a language community is contained by language. If we’re talking about gender, then there’s also the discussion which takes us into other things such as feminism, such as, you know, the whole discussion of gender relations in our society. And sometimes that happens with philosophers. And I’m thinking of, for example, the French philosopher Hélène Cixous, who talked very much about the fact that sometimes we have what she called, death dealing binary combinations in languages–  one of them being gender, it’s either masculine or feminine. She meant that because of gender…. Sometimes we associate say, for example, normally in romance languages, you associate the sun with masculinity and the moon with femininity and because of the gender and also because historically if you go back to Roman times, in terms of the different gods or goddesses associated to those particular objects. It’s almost as if, rather than being both of them at the same time, one rules. And the other one is the negative side of the same thing. That’s why she calls those relationships binary relationship because there there’s either one or the other. She calls then Death Dealing because it cannot be one without sort of almost being opposite to the other. So there’s almost like a fight for supremacy. And what she says is that we need to get beyond that binary sort of view of reality and society so that we can actually construct something new, which is more complex as opposed to just binary. So gender historically has played that– even in the whole concept of patriarchy. And sometimes, as you can imagine, in Romance languages these days, when you say, “good morning to you all” very often you would put it both in the masculine and the feminine, so that everybody feels part of it.  So you say “Bonjour à toutes et à tous,” in French, for example. So gender can also play.

AW:  So you’re actually explicitly saying “all of you females and all of you males.”

JG: Yes.

AW:  Which again, is binary — to your point.

JG: Yes. And that is binary. But if you wish that’s an intermediary stage to something else. The thing is that at least I think we’ve become more aware, more conscious, of the fact that there are certain binary relationships in language, which can be part of the whole vicious circle of patriarchy, right. So as long as you’re conscious that you’re separating biology from culture, then that’s when culture becomes more flexible. And you can start thinking by separating biology from culture, we’re able to destroy this kind of death dealing binary thought that Hélène Cixous sees as the basis of patriarchy.

AW:  It makes sense rationally. It’s like the synergistic interpretation is always going to be more sophisticated and probably more valid than the binary Sun/Moon, Black/White, Male/Female. Right?

JG: Correct.

AW:  It’s the shades of grey, as they say.

JG: That’s where you add shades of complexity, which can only be good. The more complex our thoughts are, the closer we are to reality. Because reality is complex.

AW:  We just pigeonhole people and things. I wonder what she would say about what’s happening in terms of all these countries where there are two parties, the conservative Republicans and the liberal Democrats, fighting with each other. And it’s really presented as a binary decision.

JG: Yes. And the answer is that that obviously takes away complexity… It’s not ideal. By having more parties, what happens is that reality becomes more complex. And I think we should be able to cope with complex reality because it makes us richer from the point of view of reality.  Many European countries, and I’m thinking of Germany, traditionally have more than one party. Yes, it is true that recently Germany has had certain issues from the point of view of forming a coalition government, but traditionally it has worked extremely well. And Germany has had very, very stable governments for decades.

AW:  It’s like their political system is giving more credit to the populace to understand the nuances of the various party positions, instead of just making a binary which is kind of the “dumbed-down,” simple way of making a decision.

JG: That’s right. Anything that could contribute to more layers of understanding is going to give us the view that the world is complex. The world is complex. You’re out there not to win, but to negotiate. And I think that’s crucial that we think of the world as almost like an agora. Agora as in the Greek sense of the word, that is to say a place like a kind of a metaphorical town square where we meet to try to understand the complexity of the world and to try and negotiate democratically what the future of us as a community might look like….

AW:  So, all of this relates to the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the idea of linguistic relativity or linguistic determinism. And it sounds fancy, but it’s really a general theory that says that, as you said, early on in this conversation, our inherent grammar, vocabulary, shapes our perception how we see the world as you said, our perspective of reality and a window into the culture. So I have a question for you, Josep, that relates to this hypothesis and its implications.  Thinking to written language. For  just over 10 years now, people have been using hashtags to label things. Hashtags were first used on Twitter in 2007. Hashtags are meant to make your social media posts gather in one collective space for people to reference. If this hypothesis is true, and our vocabulary shapes how we see the world, can introducing new language like this in the form of a hashtag, potentially change, not just our perception, but our behaviors and our culture?

JG: The answer is obviously, yes. That is to say, what happens is that language is in constant evolution. Sometimes when we are speaking, we can say it “within quotation marks.” And I’m sure that this is a relatively new gesture. I can’t remember it when I was a child, certainly not sure where I come from– probably not in Canada either. And so that adds something to a society that is literate and therefore, understands that the use of quotation marks or …

AW:  it’s like punctuating your verbal language, as a euphemism. And, and, I guess, communicating explicitly, or physically communicating that you understand. You’re using a euphemism, right?

JG: Correct. Correct. So that is part of the natural evolution of language. In the same way as very often we will just say “LOL” because it’s something that is part of the text message language, so we have to accept the fact that languages evolve, right? If they didn’t evolve, I’d still be speaking Latin. And I don’t. I speak Spanish.

AW:  Well, you do speak Latin….

JG: Yes, I understand Latin, yes. Let me say that I think that as long as something like the word hashtag is used to make us see the reality is actually more complex than we think then I’m in favor of it.

AW:  So legitimize is the word right, it legitimizes the movement? it labels it and maybe therefore legitimizes it?

JG: Yes, but that can also have kind of a negative effect. Because for example, there can be some people, say on the far right — and by far right I mean historical movements, like Nazi politics for example,  with some unfortunate sort of remnants in our day– that can use that also to  legitimize some of their positions and

AW:  I didn’t mean legitimize it a positive way. I just meant legitimize in terms of people interpreting it as something that is real, that is shared by at least some people.  It’s not necessarily right or wrong.

JG: Yes. But that can in itself can be dangerous. I’m not saying that this will have a negative effect because it could have a very positive outcome. Just saying that like everything else in life, it’s complex. So for example, very often when we talk about the difference between philosophical discourse and emotional communication, philosophical discourse is always at the level of ideas as opposed to the level of opinions. What do I mean by that? We can have different positions or different ways to tackle a debate we’re participating in. In this debate, we can go with the flow, we can go with the majority opinion. But the danger of that is that if it’s not well-reasoned, it becomes the demagogical. So it’s demagogy at the end of the day. Sometimes we can fall in what is called doxology. Doxology means opinion (as opposed to idea). Sometimes if I say, “you know, I like blue,” there’s nothing you can say to make me change my mind. That’s simply my opinion. Right? And therefore, we have to be careful not to fall into doxology, not to fall into opinion. Also in terms of debates, I’m of the opinion the sometimes it can be called sophistry which means that we trying to persuade the other people that we’re right. Instead of engaging in a philosophical discussion that is going to make all of us wiser by the end of our discussion. In English, we use the word to persuade. The French word for it is convaincre. Convaincre has vaincre in it, which is “to win.” So the connotation is that you’re winning over somebody else.  AW:  Wow. JG: So it’s having supremacy over the other person, ultimately, because I’ve managed to change your opinion, right? And that’s not a bad thing if we’re talking about human rights, obviously. What I’m trying to say is that we always need to be conscious. The closer we are to the complexity of reality, the easier it is going to be to build a society in which we can all live and live happily together.

AW:  As you were describing that, it occurred to me that a lot of people would feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the world. The world is incredibly complex and messy, and understanding languages can simplify that. It can give people different sets of glasses through which to interpret the reality. Because I went from feeling a little bit overwhelmed to then feeling like, well, understanding a language would help me.

JG: I would say that in the first place, I think it’s important to be able to master your own language. When you master the language, I mean being able to communicate at a complex, sophisticated level… Sometimes (without naming politicians necessarily south of the border… ) When they speak, they use very complex vocabulary and syntax, which means that they have a complex view of society.  Other speakers who tend to go for the populist vote, they tend to stick to very simple sentences. No conjunctions. Everything is black or white. That might be attractive in the kinds of democracies where we live. But at the end of the day, it’s giving simple solutions to extremely complex, sometimes economic issues.  Just going for a “yes” or “no,” just going for a binary answer is  probably not the right solution in the long term.

AW:  The default for humans is a less effortful way of thinking about things. So that’s why populism is popular, right? Perhaps?

JG: It hasn’t always been like that. And it doesn’t need to always be like that. And I think it’s probably the role of education to ensure that we educate generations that are going to see reality through its complexity, which are not going to look for easy solutions to complex issues. So I think it’s the role of education to ensure that we go against that—you called it almost like a natural trend?–  we should all go upward as opposed to all of us looking downward. So for me, democracy is aspirational. And therefore it is important that if we give people the right tools and if we make sure that people generally use language in a complex way, they become sophisticated, then that can only be good. So I would say that sophistication in our own mother tongue as well as multilingualism, at the end of the day, they give us different kinds of understanding of the same issue and therefore it allows us to progress.

AW:  Do you think that social movements and culture in-and-of-itself can accelerate over time, in terms of its evolution, because of the fact that our language is allowing us to label things? (I guess it is intertwined with the technology due to the hashtags. ) So, for example, populism seems to be on the rise. Over the weekend I read a couple of different newspapers and there were articles written by past politicians and professors all over the world, talking about the rise of populism. But could it be that it will come and go faster than it otherwise would have? Because of things like hashtags?

JG: It does accelerate changes. Without a doubt. It means that is not just accelerating, but it’s making them more widely available. And so the #MeToo for example, is not just a North American thing. Wherever you go on the planet, people can be following that interesting debate. I think that we always need to think of the quality as opposed to the quantity. What we want is quality and what we want is depth. Technology, for the time being, has not necessarily helped in that way. And it’s just been another agent of change, but I don’t think technology has necessarily helped us go deeper.

AW:  So I’m thinking about your role as the head of school at a multilingual school. And I’m thinking one could take from what you just said …that educating the students through the two different lenses which are the two different contexts of seeing the world.

JG: One of the aims of education is to ensure that there’s a sophistication of thought, critical thinking, and that has to do with your mother tongue. But then by being in a bilingual or multilingual environment, what you’re doing is you’re breaking one of the most important basic assumptions that should never be made and is that language is not just a vehicle. Language shapes your view of reality. As I was saying at the beginning, if you have 20 different words for snow, you’re going to see 20 different kinds of what I would call snow. Language shapes what we think about reality, how we segment reality, how we explain reality.

AW:  Nicely put.  I’m going to move on, then, to the five rapid fire questions that I asked every guest. OK, so my first question is, what are your pet peeves?

JG: My pet peeves. I suppose I could talk about a lack of order, lack of depth, lack of loyalty. So I very much value those three things.

AW:  Order. Depth. Loyalty.  What type of learner are you?

JG: Visual. Maybe visual because …

AW:   That’s actually surprising because I thought students who in particular, are auditory learners, find it easier to acquire languages.

JG: That is true. Yes, I am attuned to, for example, different kinds of accents. I love music. So it is true that my auditory sense has been developed and I worked on it over decades. Having said that, I’m more of a visual learner. So for example, if you introduce me to somebody and you say here is such-and- such, I will forget. If you give me his or her business card, I will remember, because my eyes have a bit of a photographic memory.

AW:  I’m exactly the same way. And you know what I do now? If the person doesn’t have a business card, or if they’re not wearing a name tag? I ask them to spell it. And then I picture the word, the letters, in my mind. Okay, next question. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

JG: Introvert. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m shy. No. Being an introvert for me means that I tend to have a relatively rich inner life. I love people. But at the same time, there’s that side of me which is reflective. When I’m reading for example, I stop to ponder. Reflect. So I’m an introvert.

AW:  That’s where you get your energy?

JG: That’s where I get my energy and that’s what I try and get those different shades of meaning.

AW:  I agree, you’re not shy. I’m not surprised to hear you are an introvert and you’re not shy. Yeah.

JG: I can speak in public. I can. I love doing that, actually. But, for example, to be able to speak in public, I need to have gone through a massive process of reflection. It is only when I’ve reflected on a particular subject that I can speak in public, because then I’m being authentic. So for me, being an introvert helps me be authentic in my messaging.

AW:  Right. And that’s why you’re such an effective speaker. And you probably enjoy writing.

JG: I love writing. It’s an internal dialogue. I love communication.

AW:  Yeah, me too! Fourth question. What is your communication preference for personal conversation?

JG: So precisely because I’m a bit of an introvert, I’d rather do it through email or text message. Whereas if I’m going to try and have a deep conversation with somebody, I’m more likely to pick up a phone or to be there in person, if possible, and try to discuss something.

AW:  Last question. Is there a podcast blog or email newsletter that you find yourself recommending to other people the most?

JG: There are many, okay. But I’m not going to recommend one. And I’ll tell you why. I think that in the kind of society where we live, I think that because our society leads us towards a certain shallowness of communication and sometimes social media can lead to that. I think that rather than recommending any of the blogs and podcasts–  which I follow, I’m going to recommend going back to basic –heavy texts– and for the history of culture that is going to give us, you know, that food-for-thought that’s going to give us, encourage us, to add more and more layers to our depth. But if we go all the way back to Plato, I don’t think that he was less of an intelligent man than any of our great intellectuals these days. So I’d go for depth. Historical depth and current depth as opposed to a certain shallowness.

AW:  Okay. Wow, that’s not the answer that I was expecting. But now that you’ve said it, I am –in retrospect– not surprised! So is there anything else you want to add?

JG: When we were talking about the different purposes of language and why sophistication of language is important. Language is a vehicle for democracy. A vehicle for democracy. So if we ensure that we all become more sophisticated, from the point of view of our mastery of our own language, and perhaps also little-by- little, learn other languages, it means that all of us become more sophisticated in our thinking. And therefore true democracy is more authentic, because we can go beyond a populist sort of debate into more substantial and profound debates. So I see language as the vehicle for true democracy. If democracy is only voting every four years, then how deep is it? I think we need to go further than that. And enable, empower, everyone to be able to be part of the construction of our future. By  being able to enter in this kind of complex dialogue, in terms of gender, complex dialogue in terms of the environment, complex dialogue in terms of rights, in terms of responsibilities.  It’s extremely complex and we cannot discuss that without language. We can express emotions without language. We can love without language. But we cannot express all of those very serious topics that will construct our future without sophistication of language. So for me, I repeat, language is the vehicle for authentic democracy.

AW:  Well put. Thank you very much for your time.

JG: Thank you.  This was a great dialogue.  Thank you very much.

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