Wednesday, August 10, 2016

First impressions

People speaking a foreign tongue often appear more logical and intelligent than those who can actually be understood.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

You heard the Chinese talking out loud and you still thought you were listening to chickens.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

These two lines, apparently contradictory, appear about 100 pages apart in Karen Joy Fowler's novel. They are the thoughts of two different characters, the first portrayed more positively than the second. Still there may be a grain of truth in each.

What's your first impression when you hear people talking in a language you do not comprehend? Do you imagine they must be expressing lofty thoughts or utter nonsense? Depending upon the circumstances, including how rapidly they are talking and what language they are speaking, I think it could be one or the other.

When I am watching foreign movies and reading subtitles, I am sometimes a little surprised at how trivial the conversation actually is. The French language in particular sounds to me like every sentence must be important. Yet then I read they are just saying ordinary things, or perhaps even swearing. It can be somehow disappointing.

On other occasions, especially when the conversation I overhear takes place at a high velocity, it can sound like meaningless noises, perhaps even that made by chickens.

Thinking rationally, of course, we know that people everywhere talk about the same kinds of things, no matter what language they speak. Those who speak one language are no smarter or no dumber than those who speak another. Unfortunately that isn't always the first thought that comes to mind.

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