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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue: January 21, 2003
Volume 38, Number 12

Linguistics professors encourage cultural understanding

By Carolyn Gonzales

Linguistics Professors David Margolin and Zouhair Maalej are teaching courses this spring that encourage understanding culture and people through language.

“Every national society in the world is multilingual in some sense, but some are more so than others,” said Margolin, who is teaching a course on societal bilingualism. He said that in the United States we tend to see ourselves as one country, one language, and believe that the rest of the world thinks the same way.

“The fact is that most people in the world speak more than one language and therefore have a different world view,” he said, adding that there are different ways to view the world and each is appropriate and valuable.

In the United States we tend to see ourselves as one country, one language, and believe that the rest of the world thinks the same way.

David Margolin

Margolin speaks English, Spanish, French, German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Faroese, a language spoken in the Faro Islands in the north Atlantic. He points to a theoretical background to explain what it means to speak more than one language. To some Native Americans in the United States who have lost land and been oppressed, their native language can imply failure. English, on the other hand, represents access to jobs and the mainstream.

That particular model is seen the world over, said Margolin, but things are changing both in the United States and other places where young people are shifting more toward the minority language.

Margolin spent nine months in Honduras as a Fulbright scholar working with a bilingual teaching project with the Tawahka, a small ethnic group who live in the northeastern jungles. “They represented the first indigenous people to be trained at a university to teach bilingually,” he said.

Margolin said that the Tawahkas are, for the most part, trilingual. They speak their local language, the regional language, Miskitu, and Spanish.

During the course, Margolin and his students will look at the linguistic trends in some of these places. They will look at examples of language stability as well as situations with great change.

Zouhair Maalej is a visiting Fulbright scholar from Tunisia who is exploring the differences in the use of metaphor in English and Arabic. His course targets language in human interaction.
Maalej examines linguistic differences used to express time, emotion, gender, proper names, advertising, translation and sign language. He came to UNM, in part, because of the strength of its sign language program.

“When expressing emotion, there is a recurring theme of embodiment. English speakers will express anger, ‘I’m about to explode.’ The body is the container for anger. In Arabic, specifically Tunisian Arabic, the heart is the container or host of emotion,” Maalej said.

He said that it is universal for humans to take abstract concepts and embody them, but it differs from culture to culture how those concepts are expressed.

In English, someone would say, “He broke her heart.” In Arabic, that isn’t metaphorical because it is taboo to talk about love emotions outside of the relationship. Love can be abstractly described in Arabic, however, as madness or that to be in love is to be dying, he said.

Both Margolin and Maalej say that the first language an individual learns influences the speaker’s use and perception of subsequently learned languages.

“We can speak to each other in English, but my perception of English is colored by the models and culture of my native language,” Maalej said. “My understanding of English will never be the same.”

Margolin said that the second language is layered on the model of the first. One can learn the vocabulary, syntax and structure of multiple languages, but the first language is always an influence.

“Take the concept of ‘woman,’” Maalej said. “The concept is rooted in experience, culture and association. There is shared understanding and overlap in the perception of woman, but not understanding culturally what woman means can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding.”

Learning the tools of the language is but a small part of really understanding the language in context. “You have to live in that culture and see how it functions,” Margolin said.

Maalej and Margolin agree on the value of learning multiple languages in order to understand the world’s people and cultures.

“Language is the tool of diplomacy,” Margolin said.