Wednesday, February 15, 2012

First thoughts on Linguaculture

As I watched Liann Seiter's Inquiry Conference presentation (available here) "Where's my Babelfish?" I was reminded so much of my own survey issues from last summer, and I really enjoyed it because it provides good evidence for the importance of language (and therefore linguistics) in doing ethnographic/sociological/anthropological work.

With my survey, something that seemed to be a simple question from my cultural framework (and educational background) suddenly turned into a nonsensical question when phrased in another language. Actually in my case it was even a nonsensical way to ask a question, since neither hypothetical questions nor metalinguistic comparisons usually occur in the context of the linguaculture where I was trying to use them. I think the concept of linguaculture (Friedrich 1989), or Agar's languaculture (1994) are two ways of thinking about this connection between language and culture; more on their views later though. For now I want to say, it seems to me that part of the answer to Seiter's question lies in the difficulty she had translating her surveys.

Seiter was in the field in India conducting sociological research on attitudes about emerging adulthood, specifically the qualities or attributes that people consider necessary for qualification as a mature adult. She wanted to study the development from young adulthood into mature adulthood (mature in the sense of fully developed, responsible, capable--or at least those are the attributes that I perceive), with a distinction between adolescence and young or emergent adulthood. In other words, she was not necessarily referring to the difference between being a teenager and an adult, but rather the difference between physical and emotional maturity. I think this was the idea anyway; the presentation was more about the survey translation than her research question itself so I may be a little off. She used various events and personality traits in order to measure which attributes were considered a part of this process and how necessary each was. For example, one question was about the use of alcohol as a component of maturity; drinking is something that in American culture is often a signifier of adulthood, especially the 21st birthday and being legally allowed to drink alcohol.

What she found was that when her survey was translated into Tamil and then back-translated into English, her questions had become influenced by the cultural and perhaps even the personal values of the translators. So in the example about alcohol use, this neutral description was translated as an addiction to alcohol. The same thing happened with smoking cigarettes: instead of being listed simply as an action or behavior, in the translation it became an addiction to smoking, a term with qualitative connotation instead of just a description. These examples may have been an issue of the personal values of the translator, an LDS man who Seiter mentioned also translated “shoplifting” as “stealing articles from church.” If prevailing cultural perceptions in the LDS community about substance use apply here, I would think he probably views any drug use as tied to addiction and substance abuse. It is even possible that this is an Indian cultural perception and not just a Mormon one, but I'm speaking from my own knowledge here.

Another major problem that Seiter addresses in the translation of her survey was the lack of terminology for the categories that she wanted to discuss. She had trouble with the term mature adult because it seemed to connote “elderly” to the survey-takers, as it sometimes does in English when used euphemistically. She found another term for female adult that specifically referred to a girl who has had her first period and is therefore an adult in the sense of being sexually mature, qualified for marriage and capable of reproduction, but she couldn't find a good term for anything in between these two. I think that this lack of terminology might point to the answers she's looking for. I don't know the nuances of Tamil and can't say I'm an expert on the culture she was studying (India's got so many cultures..), but my guess is that these people view life stages in a completely different way than we do.

If I had to make a tentative preliminary guess, I think it's possible that the “qualifications” for adulthood for a female have to do with sexual development, and that true maturity or wisdom are by and large considered to be the province of more aged folks. In other words, people probably don't think in terms of child/adolescent/young adult/mature adult/etc etc, but have a different way of dividing up life stages, maybe childhood/reproductive stage/elderly wisdom, or something like that. Furthermore, it's probably much different for males, but may be similarly related to reproduction through the qualifications of marriage and the ability to financially support a household--or wait, is that Mormons again? Maybe I shouldn't venture a guess for the male version of this, I plead ignorance.

In any case, this “translation” issue definitely seems to be rooted in a cultural perspective, something which for me strengthens the ties between Linguistic and Anthropological investigations further. And not only those two, but among the social sciences in general (and likely other disciplines as well), which is both a daunting and an exciting prospect for me as I hope to learn more about all of these things.

I also recently read the pertinent "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?", an article for the New York Times by Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, which has of course been added to my already lengthy reading list.

I think my field research this summer will be greatly affected by the ties between language and culture, in ways that I'm not fully prepared for or even aware of yet. To prepare for this challenge, I think I will work on my Kichwa language competency and knowledge of Runa culture, and will probably work in a more qualitative way this time around than I did before. Hopefully with enough qualitative information and hard recordings to refer back to, I will be able to gain some insight into linguaculture and be able to use it to my advantage in my linguistic analysis as well.

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