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by William H. Benson

February 26, 2015

     To learn a second language is difficult, if not impossible. At an early age, a child learns to think in his or her first language, and so his or her brain is set, hardwired for that first language. After that, an adolescent or an adult cannot stop thinking in that first language and begin thinking in a second or third. Thus, most people fail to learn a second language, despite loads of willpower and intense study.

     One guy said, after years of living in the Orient, “I am just not that good at learning languages.”

     Daniel Everett, an American linguist, studied the Pirahã people of the Amazon for thirty years, and determined that they “use grammar in ways that violate our understanding of how language works.” Because they have no words for numbers, other than “one or many,” they cannot count, and their word for blue is the same for green. From his research, Daniel Everett concluded that “human beings invented language, that they can reinvent it, or they can lose it.”

     In his 1990’s bestseller, Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus, popular psychologist, John Gray, points to the language barriers that divide men and women. He contends that women count, that they keep score, and that men are unaware of a woman’s scorecard. A woman places a value of one on each of a man’s attempts at sincerity or attention, and she expects to receive a series of points daily.

     On the other hand, a man believes a single overpowering act of devotion and attention will offset his days of remoteness and unwillingness to talk. Hence, he will escape into his work or his “cave” for days, but then emerge to take his wife on an exotic week-long vacation. He thinks, “All is ok? Right?”

     My contention: both genders live on Earth, and on this planet, men and women must work together to provide food for themselves and their children. Those who fail to cooperate end up alone.

     Shakespeare’s Rosalind said, “Do you not know that I am a woman? When I think I must speak.”

     After years of listening to thousands of women’s stories over several decades, Sigmund Freud asked a most profound question that he failed to answer, “What do women want?” A perceptive woman replied to Freud’s question. “Women,” she said, “want to live their own lives.”

     James Herriot said, “It is a pity that the animals cannot talk. If they could, what would they say about us.” It was human beings whom evolution blessed with the right combination of lungs, larynx, pharynx, palate, and tongue that permits spoken language. Still a dog communicates. A rush to the door and a whimper means he or she wants outside. A head tilted, ears cocked, and a tail wagged speaks volumes, and some people miss this human/dog language.

     Monty Roberts, the man who listens to horses, says that horses communicate with each other and with humans through a language he named Equus, and so he trains them within that language.

      Two weeks ago, the columnist Jonathan Chait of the New York magazine observed that the “language police” for political correctness have gone too far. He writes, “Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.”

      Few would want to return to the days when editors permitted slights, insults, or overt racism to appear in print. “There’s a reason we don’t use slurs in newsprint anymore,” he writes, “because the framework for acceptable language and behavior has changed.” America expanded its language framework to include most American people and its numerous minority groups.

     Americans learned a second language, one that was polite and respectful, and it was not easy.

     But, Chait says, “Now the language police condemn people of unforgivable racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and general bigotry” for what he calls “micro-aggressions.”

     “If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt, and if you are accused of bias, or ‘called out,’ reflection and apology are the only acceptable response. To dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in PC culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous.”

     America’s language contrasts sharply with that of others. How can anyone explain ISIS’s “savage irrationality,” where “an intoxicating vision of Islamic purity has attracted thousands of young men who have traded lives of powerlessness for a thrilling and pitiless campaign against a corrupt world?”

     George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, answered the question. “Slaughtering infidels is not a means to an end—it is the end. It is a mass death cult.” Because these cult members speak a single language, one of massacre and slaughter, no one can or will communicate with them.

Language is the essence of becoming human. Words ignite our emotional vocabularies, kindle our passions, and enliven our ordinary existence. Language is the instrument, that when used in an appropriate manner, makes us human, a more complete man or woman.