You and I

I was reading a novel recently in which a character speaks a language which doesn’t have the concept of the first and second person, basically no concept of I (or me) and you. As a result of this, the character himself cannot conceive of these concepts.

I’ve written before about this concept of linguistic determinism: the idea that not having a word for a concept means that it’s therefore not possible to conceive of that concept. Suffice it to say that I think the idea is too strong (surely, even without words such as I or me, you can notice a difference between doing something yourself, and another person doing it, and can communicate this difference with gestures, for example). I do believe though, that the nature of specific languages can certainly influence the way we see the world.

Anyway, what really struck me was not the idea of not having the concept of I or you, but when another character began trying to teach these concepts to the individual who lacked them. Naturally, this made me wonder how I would try to do something similar.

First off, having to actually explain the concepts of you and I is something most of us will never have to actually do. But conveying how a certain language represents these concepts is something that is likely to happen for language teachers.

And very often, it’s not so difficult. The most common way to distinguish between different grammatical persons is to use different pronouns with the same verb: I go, you go etc. A lot of languages have a similar structure, so it’s often an easy idea to get across, and if you know the language of whoever you’re trying to teach, you can directly translate.

If you don’t have that luxury though, it can get a little trickier. Let’s imagine you have one student, so you say I‘m a teacher, and you’re a student. Sounds straightforward, and you’ve got the concept of your different roles across. But, have you got the true concept of I and you across? It’s not hard to imagine for example, that the student thinks that you specifically refers to them in this context, and I to the teacher. They might for example, say I teach you, and you learn English.

You see how it can be tricky. When get down to the basics, a lot of language teaching is fairly simple labelling. This word represents this concept, this grammatical form represents this perspective, etc. It’s not really that simple of course, but it generally doesn’t require us to step too much far out of ourselves.

Conveying how to use I and you though requires to take another mental step beyond just saying that you represents this person, and I this person. It also makes you notice the relationship between two people, and put yourself in the position of the person who sees you as you. It requires an extra level of imagination from the teacher and the students.

It’s doable of course, and often requires a lot of examples to hammer the point home (off the top of my head, using examples of the same three people alternating between referring to each as I, you, and he/she, would be useful.)

It’s an interesting demonstration of how you need to think about other people’s perspectives when teaching or learning a language, and how a little existentialism goes a long way!

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