This is America?


Let’s get a few things straight here 

North America is a continent. South America is a continent. (Central America is like some sort of weird connective tissue of a landmass, I guess.) The Americas are not, nor ever have they been, a continent en masse. The English and Spanish languages follow roughly the same division as the continents, with some exceptions: Spanish creeping it’s way north of the Isthmus of Panama, and Portuguese making it’s dichotomy-ruining foray to the south.

In Latin American Spanish (I don’t know about Spanish Spanish), someone from, say, the United States is a norteamericano. Rightly so. Spanish is spoken widely in South America, and North America’s asymmetric political presence in the hemisphere necessitates the distinction. Saying you’re American isn’t specific enough.

But in American English (I can’t speak for, or speak, British English), American is synonymous with United States-an (I made that up; did you notice?). It’s a legitimate abbreviation of the country’s official name.


I get that when I’m in, for instance, Nicaragua, I have to adjust my customary manner of speaking to say not that I am American, but that I am from the United States. And if I am speaking Spanish, I’ll say that I’m North American. That’s all fine and dandy.

But I’ve had pseudo-sophisticated norteamericanos call me out before when, speaking English with other United States-ans (see? there’s no way to make the distinction without awkwardness in English), I said that I would be leaving America, even though I wouldn’t be leaving the Western Hemisphere.

And that’s just annoying (he knew what I meant).

The correction is equivocating on a cognate. The distinction is linguistic and cultural, not universal. I’m from America. I left America to come to Nicaragua. If I were writing this in Spanish (let’s get real; my Spanish isn’t that good yet) I would say it differently. If you are from South or Central America and I make the mistake in conversation with you, then please correct me. If neither one of those is the case, kindly keep your appropriated indignance to yourself.


Structuring time


In English, when we create a timeline, it tends to move along the horizontal axis, the past to the left, the future to the right. The left/right orientation is easily explained by the fact that the language is read from left to right, so we naturally want to follow that progression in an image. But why the horizontal orientation? As long as we’re envisioning time as a linear progression, why can’t we imagine it vertically, or diagonally, or spirally (linear doesn’t have to equal a straight line, right?).

History of English

With my admittedly limited understanding of Mandarin Chinese, I think that the structure of time’s idioms in the language would cause a native Mandarin speaker to envision time in a different way. I think that Mandarin facilitates a vertical conception of time, where the past is at the top and the future at the bottom. This is just conjecture, but if I’m right I think it’s interesting to consider the implications of these differing orientations.


reality is always more complex than you want it to be

Before we get into that, though, let me just say that I know I’m oversimplifying here. English can be written and read in a vertical orientation (think neon motel signs). There are also plenty of vertically oriented timelines in English. And while Chinese is traditionally written in vertical columns from top to bottom, it is still legible when arranged horizontally. I’m going to ignore these subtleties for now because I can and it’s convenient to my thesis.

see what I mean?

What I’m talking about

In English, if I want to talk about the month after this one, I can say “next month,” or “the following month.” Likewise, for the month before this one, I can say “last month,” or “the previous month.” The language is the language of the queue; one month after another after another, all lined up waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

In Mandarin, by contrast, “next month” becomes xiàgèyuè (下個月/下个月); basically “the month underneath,” or “the month below.” In the same way, “last month” becomes shànggèyuè (上個月/上个月), or “the month on top”/”the month above.”


What I want to do is play these colloquial metaphors out further and examine their corollaries.

Arranging time horizontally effectively levels the playing field. The past, the present, and the future all share the same “geographical” elevation and, by extension, the same hierarchic elevation; one is not more important than the other.

In addition, things on a horizontal surface tend to sit still until some force acts on them to get them moving (thanks, Newton). This means (1) that to get from the past to now, our ancestors had to do some work, and to get to the future, we have to do some work; and (2) the rate of progression through time is not constant (Einstein, anyone?).

And what about time along the vertical axis? (When I first mentioned this idea to Chloe, I had a few things in mind, but she pointed out that there were other possibilities I hadn’t thought of, so these ideas aren’t all mine.)

Situating the present between the past above and the future below lends a certain feeling of inevitability to events. You can’t fall upwards. It also means that there is both a constant acceleration and a terminal velocity at which we objects fall through time.

The past being above, you have to crane your neck upwards to see it, and when you do you probably see the tread of its boots. The future, you look down and see the top of its silly, futuristic hat. What I mean is that vertical time could possibly lend itself to a degree reverence for the past and disdain for the future, due to the hierarchic arrangement.

Having the future beneath you also means that you don’t have to do any work to get there. Life becomes a little easier in this light, and nostalgia becomes a little more futile.

So what?

Assuming that most other “Western” languages conceptualize time as English does (I don’t know if they do), and given that China is the largest nation in “the East,” I wonder if any of the larger cultural divides between East and West are the result of simple linguistic differences like these? I think it’s not impossible.

For the skeptics, here are some TED resources that talk about language’s capacity to affect the way we think:

Blog post


Toying with languages


Recently I’ve been spending a good portion of my time trying to learn both Spanish and Mandarin. And as I’ve been studying, I’ve noticed that a fledgling theory about the process of learning a new language keeps rearing its head, so I’m going to try to write about it here to get a better idea of what it looks like.

But first, some backstory.

I’ve always been a bit of a language-learning poseur. My friends can tell you about the time I was learning French. Or the other time when it was Russian. Or Spanish. On my bookshelves there is a stack of seldom-opened grammars, dictionaries, notebooks, and phrasebooks in Russian (aunt speaks it), Arabic (I was dead set on backpacking Morocco), French (no particular reason that I can recall, but if you ask Garrett he’ll say it was for the romance), Spanish (high school), and now Mandarin (girlfriend speaks it).

Up until a few months ago, though, I couldn’t have gotten much beyond “Hi, how are you?” in conversation in any of those languages. (This in spite of 4 years of Spanish in high school that somehow granted me 2 college credits and graciously exempted me from Auburn’s foreign language requirements.) I’ve had the ambition, and I’ve made the attempts, but I’ve always stalled out somewhere just south of “elementary proficiency

I’ve had romantic ideas about foreign languages and the people who speak them for a while now, and I’ve long aspired to know multiple languages. Like, a lot of languages (10 seems like a good round number to me). But I’ve never gotten very far into the process. I like the idea of multilingualism, don’t get me wrong — the connotations of cosmopolitanism that it carries, and the promise of exotic adventures I perceive it to hold — but the problem is that ideas tend to lend themselves to idealism. Knowing a language requires learning it first, and learning is a messy, time-intensive business better suited to realists than idealists. It’s exhausting, discouraging, and sometimes boring.

So, back to the present.

Recently, I’ve been making some real progress towards learning a second and a third language. And this is where my theory comes in. Because I’ve noticed that my attitude toward a foreign language starts out in one place and begins to shift slowly away from that place as I learn more. And I think it’s the inertia of this incipient attitude that’s been the downfall of my language-learning attempts in the past.

In the beginning, I tend to think of and to treat a new language as a kind of toy-language. I see it as a collection of funny sounds and constructions that, if I put them together just right, can elicit laughter and sometimes understanding from people who already speak the language. I learn the vocabulary and grammar necessary to talk about some of the things I’m doing throughout the day (maybe some profanity), but that’s it. I don’t take it seriously because any conversations I have in the language are superficial or banal or both. Its utility doesn’t go beyond that of a parlor trick. I know it’s not true, but I feel as though the language isn’t real, as if it couldn’t possibly be used to express complex ideas, thoughts, or feelings. It’s just a childish code that’s fun to play with for maybe a few days or weeks, but that will eventually lose its novelty and fade away.

Obviously this isn’t intellectual. I know that literature is written and scientific research conducted in the new language, that people spend their whole lives speaking it with those they love and those they hate — that it’s just as complex and nuanced as my own “real” language. But knowing that doesn’t help me shake the feeling that all of the time I’m spending learning pronunciation and vocabulary and grammar is nothing more than useless amusement.

And I don’t think this attitude is just a reflection of my own proficiency in the language. No matter how much I learned in the past (I got the farthest in Spanish and Russian), the languages stayed abstract to me. Learning was a largely academic exercise without any emotion in it, without any reality.

I’ve found that hearing the language used for real, by real people for real things, really seems to accelerate the process. I know this is old news — that immersion in your target language accelerates your acquisition — but the way I see it, the reasoning is different from what I’ve always been told. It doesn’t work because of sheer brute force. Because you spend more time with the language or cram more of the language into less time, or whatever it may be. It works because it erodes the early attitude that says this new language is a largely trivial, abstract thing. It gives the learning process social stakes rather than just educational or personal ones. It makes the language real.

Watching a movie, listening to conversations between native speakers, trying to read the news: all of it forces me to look at the language seriously. To realize that I can use it to say more than just, “Where is the bathroom?” I can say important and serious things someday if I spend the time and put in the effort. To me, that’s a more powerful motivator than amusement.

I’ve found that overcoming the initial attitude I have toward a new language is something I have to work through. Maybe now that I understand it better, I’ll be able to make the going a little easier in the future. Maybe that’s why people say learning your second language is the hardest and it gets easier after that. Not because you know more about languages than you did to begin with, but because you understand the learning process more fully and can anticipate obstacles and respond to them before they slow you down too much or stop you.

Or maybe it’s just me.

In any case, in the spirit of putting things in perspective, here’s an discomfiting video that makes English sound pretty silly: