Meaning, Minds and Mother Tongues

Can we ever fully understand someone whose language we do not speak?

Hearing our native tongue, especially spoken with our home-town accent, in a strange place comforts us. When I was dean on the marvelous program, Semester at Sea, a semester-long voyage around the world with 600 students, 30 faculty members, along with more than 300 crew, staff, and family, we docked in over 13 countries. Students were nervous about not speaking the language. Many of them told me that as they wandered the streets of Tokyo, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Madras, Cairo, Jerusalem, Odessa, Casablanca, and La Guaira, among others, whenever they heard their native language, usually English, they felt un-alone, in the presence of someone like themselves.

This is easy enough to show by experiment. First, go somewhere where the people speak differently from you – even slightly, such as a Bostoner visiting Atlanta, Georgia or a Cockney visiting a place where Received Pronunciation is spoken. Next, listen to the dissonance of the varied voices around you. You will perhaps

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