Philosopher’s thoughts about language and understanding
I am in the business of Webifying and organizing a way of delivering better English understanding to Chinese adults. I am also doing business development in China in the sense that I, and my associates, are working through understandings of business goals and business organization with Chinese business people.
Given the issues I have encountered in my activities for this cause, I related instinctively to an essay about human understanding vs. autism and language in this weeks NY Times essay “Beyond understanding”. The author begins by discussing the autism handicap as a barrier to social efficacy and arriving at shared understanding.
Here is a first excerpt that caught my eye:
we might have to concede that, given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. And it is harder than you think it is going to be to eliminate, entirely, the residue of obscurity, the possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence.
So what does really happen between a foreigner – laowai – and a native Mandarin speaker when the native English speaker is trying to understand beyond the dividing line of language – English vs. Mandarin!
Why does language arise? It arises because of the scope for misunderstanding. Body language, gestures, looks, winks, are not quite enough. I am not a mind-reader. I don’t understand. We need noises and written signs, speech-acts, the Word, logos. If you tell me what you want, I will tell you what I want. Language is a system that arises to compensate for an empathy deficit. But with or without language, I can still exhibit traits of autism. I can misread the signs. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that autism only arises, is only identified, at the same time as there is an expectation of understanding. But if autism is a problem, from certain points of view, autismo is also a solution: it is an assertion that understanding itself can be overvalued.
Me and my associates in our Accent Free English enterprise believe that it’s not just a matter of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Some of our challenges seem to have more to do with the understanding gap irrespective of language barriers.
Do you understand what I have written here?
- Beyond Understanding (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Factbox: Language and politics in the Chinese world (reuters.com)
- The Emerging Neuroscience of Autism: an Opportunity to Learn and to Share (autismspeaks.org)