I recently came across a Guardian piece recounting the author’s experience marrying a frenchman before having learned a meaningful amount of French. Though her husband spoke perfect English, the author wrote of the great psychological alienation created by her husband’s inability to speak to her in his native language, described by him as “touching [her] with gloves”.
The article itself has a fairly happy ending; she learns French, and for the most part all is well. But for whatever reason, I found the gloves image unshakeable. Perhaps because the action it associates with language – reaching out and touching someone else – is exactly how I conceptualize language. We struggle day-in-and-day-out against the melancholy of cognitive subjectivity, the incurable doubt over how anyone other than ourselves perceives the world. L’enfer, c’est les autres. Language — imperfectly and inconsistently — lets us transcend these barriers and touch one another. But a shared tongue a shared consciousness does not make, and when our linguistic backgrounds or proficiencies differ, we may sense a pair of heavy gloves lying between our words, a barrier through which skin cannot meet skin.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that language affects conceptual cognition; concepts are understood differently depending upon the structure and lexicon of the language in which one speaks to others and structures their internal stream-of-consciousness. The ‘Strong’ Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserted that language determined cognition. That’s now mostly discredited — few modern linguists or cognitive scientists take it seriously. The ‘Weak’ Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserts that language merely influences cognition. Though this remains controversial, in the past few decades new neurolinguistic data have brought the idea somewhat back into academic vogue.
So I got to thinking. If one believes that language affects cognition not just on the basis of how well one knows a given language, but on how early one learned that language and incorporated it into intellectual and social development, then the subtleties of connotation, implication, and subtext will always be somewhat different to a native speaker of a given language and a non-native speaker. This gets more meaningful when we drop the hypothetical nature of it all and admit that even people who learn 2nd/3rd/4th/nth languages incredibly well usually don’t get to a position of truly equal proficiency with a native speaker, so even if all of those subtleties could theoretically be learned, they usually aren’t.
If language (oral, tactile, visual, whatever) is a weapon with which we break prisons of subjectivity and form relationships with other people, its relevance to romantic relationships is unmissable. Romantic relationships are nothing more than a particular iteration of our efforts to understand another person across the chasm of subjectivity, efforts in which linguistic precision becomes incredibly important. The upshot of which is that, at least for those of us who have a language-oriented way of thinking, it logically follows that in cases where partners have different linguistic backgrounds, forming a shared emotional understanding would be much harder. Sure, our Guardian author thought she understood her husband better once she had learned more French, but would a gap not always exist to some extent? Yes, cultural/experiential gaps always exist, but given the role of language in understanding and bridging other cultural gaps, I think this is a separate discussion from relationships which are interracial or interclass or so on— a difference not only in culture but also in the medium with which one begins to be conscious of cultural differences, to whatever extent (I’m not trying to compare such things quantitatively, in terms of how “hard” something is, but simply as distinct questions).
I hate, hate, hate the intuitive corollaries of this line of thinking; obviously it’s profoundly socially reactionary to be less willing to engage in such relationships than in others simply on the basis of linguistic background, and the practical effects of fewer such relationships occurring would undoubtedly be bad for the world as a whole. But I also think it’s unavoidable that people who think about language or about relationships in these ways would be more worried about such relationships. I suspect (without personal knowledge) that many who have been in such situations have experienced this worry. All of this I hate but again find unavoidable. It’s hard to think about such things on a theoretical level or using such broad hypotheticals, but this itself does not detract from the solidity of the line of thinking.
And yet, there remains a saving grace. As I started this line of thought by mentioning, the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is almost certainly wrong. Language heavily influences how we think and see the world, yes, but we can, over time, learn to transcend those influences and see things in a different light. It’s not easy, but what is? Which means that a deep connection between people with radically different linguistic proficiencies is not to be ruled out, as our Guardian author, or any one of the countless people engaged in such situations, might tell us. And there’s something quite poetic in the vision of loving people, together, gradually but firmly pulling off their gloves.