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Languages make us who we are

Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer, founders of the Mash-Up Americans podcast, hosted a vibrant discussion at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles about languages and polyglots. As a French transplant and new addition to Supertext’s team of language geeks, I was intrigued.

Barely arrived on stage, Lehrer warns us: “Our discussions often turn into group therapy.” Joined by Choi, the dynamic duo is already warmed-up. Their show and eponymous website explore the world of multiculturalism in the US through a wide range of topics. Raised speaking English, Spanish and Korean respectively, they both recall that languages have forever been an obsession. Language is not just about communication, it is about transferring culture, says Choi. This discussion hit home – since moving to the US, I’ve grappled with the transience of identity when living life in more than one language. And since joining Supertext, I’ve joined the mission of transferring culture through language.

The frustrations of being a polyglot

On the panel was comedian Marcella Arguallo, journalist Dexter Thomas, and Keith Chen, professor of Economics at UCLA, who emphasizes how much thinking in a certain language affects you: “It changes the way you view the world and your behavior.” Chen’s recent work focuses on how people’s economic choices are influenced by the structure of their language. He explains how speaking several languages makes you a better problem solver: different perspectives mean more options. And how polyglots have a strong ability to pause and think before acting. “Oh yeah, like when I am looking for a word I can’t remember,” jokes Lehrer.

Later, the panel talked about the frustration of not being able to translate certain concepts. And introduced the concept of the explanatory comma, which are phrases inserted to describe something that is not directly translatable – like dulce de leche, a kind of flan with caramel. Obviously more delicious-sounding in the original language. I see our linguists facing this kind of challenge all the time, questioning if it should be left as the original, translated despite the loss in flair, or described with an explanatory comma. Because words matter when it comes to connecting to people’s emotional side. Asked by the audience on their favorite untranslatable word, Arguallo answered quite adamantly,

“Tía. I am nobody’s aunt. I am a tía.”

Choi and Chen explained that both in Korean and Cantonese there are very specific names to describe family relationships that could hardly be translated in English. “It specifically describes the bond you have with this person,” said an expressive Choi. And then we were again not too far from group therapy.

After the super insightful talk, it was time to let our hair down. DJ Sizzle Fantastic – a Mexican American mash-up herself – played a great set in the Hammer Museum courtyard. As we immersed ourselves in the musica de barrios, I was thinking how music is another form of language that has the ability to go beyond words.

Video via Youtube

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