The language of the universe, the languages of humans: Dmitry Petrov at TEDxPerm


Translator: Susana Coto Yakovliev
Reviewer: Kristaps Kadiķis [TEDxPerm] [The Art of Being] [Dmitry Petrov] I am a simultaneous interpreter
by profession. In addition, I teach people foreign languages, various languages. In addition to that I also teach
simultaneous translation to translators. It has it’s own specifics. Interesting that at a certain point my goal
of learning foreign languages went beyond the rational: I started to learn
not only the languages that were required for my job, to make a living, but, strangely enough, I developed a passion
for ancient languages or very small and rare languages. Trying to understand
why all of this happened, I found the answer: As it turns out
I really wanted to understand how a language becomes what it is now. Language as a whole, global. What made it that way? I realized that despite
all the rules of dialectics, that we have all studied at some point, the language develops,
not from simple to complex, but from complex to simple. If we take all the ancient languages, ancestors of the existing languages, they were many more times complex, universal, rich, diverse in forms. Therefore, Latin is richer than Italian, Old English richer than Modern English, Sanskrit richer than Hindi. This gave me a lot to think about. I thought, how could
the ancient people come up with such complex languages? Their lives were simple
and monotonous enough. They had to survive
and continue their species, as well as find food
and escape from dangerous predators. But it’s not that simple. The languages of the ancient people were rich in quantity
of forms and inflections. Even today it is seen in the examples
of the aboriginal languages, of the non-written languages. I started thinking. Given that I am not an expert
in the exact sciences, I allowed myself to go beyond and set foot
on the most sacred of grounds. A little bit of physics, a little bit
of mathematics, I thought: I guess there should be common principles that unify all our knowledge system. That is, I started to perceive language as something inherent
to the Universe, to the Being. We can talk not only about English, Latin, or Russian; but also
about the language of mathematics, physics, chemistry. The same reality can be
not only described, but also transferred from the language of biology to the language of mathematics, from the language of physics
to Latin and so on. Initially I believed that these thoughts didn’t make any sense,
that they were totally groundless. But they gave me rather pragmatic results. How can I use it? Again, in a somewhat insolent way, I took the concept of waves
and particles, and thought: Can I apply it to the process
of learning languages? What’s the connection? If we consider a particle as a word; and the wave as its surroundings, every thought, images, feelings that orbit around the word; we get one voluminous unit
that’s much easier to understand. Here’s an example that I can give. Recently, anthropologists observed aboriginal tribes
somewhere in the Amazon Jungle. Each member of the tribe
knows at least 10 different languages. Tribal languages, of course,
but languages nevertheless. A member of the tribe was asked to explain how he learned the language
of the neighboring tribe. He answered: “I don’t understand
what you are talking about”. “Well, how do you speak
the language of a neighboring tribe?” He didn’t understand the question. “All right, how do you say ‘axe’
in the language of your neighbors?” “I don’t know.” “But you bought them an axe, you talked to them, laughed
and discussed something…” And he said: “Oh! In order
to speak that language I have to cross the river,
enter the village, look at their faces, their palms, the shore, and then I’m in the environment
where I can speak the language. But if I leave the village, I’m sorry, I can’t speak
the language anymore.” This means, the environment
shapes our linguistic abilities. How can I apply this
to the methodology of teaching? First, it’s necessary to recreate
the system of images and sensations, given that we cannot
follow the example of this aborigine. This system shapes for us
the concept of each language. Therefore, when I teach Italian, I tell my students to close their eyes and imagine Italy, Italians,
and the Italian language. What does the imagination
evoke spontaneously? Each one will have
their own ideas, images. Someone will hear songs by Celentano, someone will remember
the smell of a hot pizza, someone will remember traveling
to some kind of a sea resort. Each will see different images. But in any case,
there will be something in common. Italy will be exactly that for the person. We should perceive a language
not in a linear fashion, as a set of words, grammatical rules. Instead, it’s a voluminous space that has its own flavor, aroma,
color, and generates various emotions. This is what allows small children of 2 or 3 years to learn
their mother tongue in an active way, in little time, without any type of formal education. I tried to use this in my teaching methodology with adults. Another thing: you won’t find anybody who denies the opportunity
of learning another language or two. But we know that some people, that study a foreign language for years, sadly are not always
satisfied with the results. Another paradoxical point: I discovered that each person that complains about
hurdles and difficulties in learning foreign languages is always capable
of localizing the problem in their own body. I have even categorized these people. They are those that tend
to analyze the information too much. They think a lot constantly. They combine who knows what
to construct a phrase. Then they dig through
the virtual dictionary, they go to an archive of forgotten words. And only after all that mess,
they manage to form a phrase. Then there’s another kind of people. They do not have any problems
with constructing phrases, building texts or a construction. They have a good memory. But their blockage is here. I know and understand everything, but “can’t say a word.” There is also another category
that feels that blockage, the linguistic pain here. People that always fear,
“God forbid I say something wrong!” “What if I blurt out something,
everyone will laugh… what a nightmare… what if they
misunderstand me!” So, to facilitate the learning of new information… That, of course, applies not only
to learning foreign languages, but to any information in general — it’s necessary to tune in the mind in this new information. If a person speaks or uses
a number of languages, they often talk of this adjustment as a change of radio frequency. Now, for an example, we speak Italian, and then… we switch to Russian. Furthermore, we start
to adopt gestural characteristics and facial expressions that belong
to the people of the language that we are studying or trying to speak. I remember one time
when I was talking to an Italian, and suddenly I grabbed his hands. What happened? He was speechless,
he couldn’t say a word. And the man really liked to talk. But when I let his hands go,
he went like this. (Laughter) (Applause) It’s necessary to take such things
into account from the very beginning when studying and trying to feel
like a native speaker. For example, if you study
the American version of English, you need to try to feel like an American.
(American accent) Understood? (Laughter) If you study Italian, then you need to… Something invisibly changes, unclear on which level, in which part of the body, but you start to act like an Italian, while also remaining yourself. The other side of the coin:
How do we perceive the reality that manifests in the languages? It changes the register of our perception. Here’s a simple example. Let’s each imagine a computer keyboard. The majority of the computer keyboards,
at least in Russia, have both Cyrillic and Latin
characters on them. When you need to write a text in Russian, you have a specific strategy in mind. According to the way
you’ll write the text, you choose the letters on the keyboard. Suddenly, you have to write
something in English. Your eyes are the same, the same screen,
and the same keyboard. But something changes.
You start to see different letters. Now I say this, but think, when you really have to do it, write in two languages, you know that on the conscious level,
almost nothing happens. That is, we are capable
of perceiving reality in a different way,
from a different point of view, just by changing
the register of perception. Another important thing is,
obviously, motivation. You won’t get far without it. It’s not only useful
in learning languages. I remember an event from my life. When my oldest son was almost 3 years old,
he started talking. But at the time, he lived in Mumbai, not in the poor neighborhood,
but not that far from it. And I was working in another country. When I visited him
a couple of months later, he already spoke fluently. But he spoke Hindi, and I didn’t speak it. (Laughter) Obviously, children
won’t tolerate such things; they know you, they want to talk to you. And if you don’t understand,
that’s your problem. That was one of the motivating factors that literally forced me
to learn the language in the period of one week. First, I achieved his level, then, after a week, I spoke it fluently, bargained in the Hindi market
and got crazy discounts. Sometimes they even gave me the things I wanted to buy, for free. I was so eager to tell them:
I just learned it! And they’d say: “No, obviously,
you have lived here your whole life…” But my pride and sense of superiority quickly vanished when I realized that any merchant
in Mumbai fluently speaks at least 8 languages and they don’t consider
themselves polyglot, they don’t shout it from the rooftops. It’s just a matter of motivation. A German politician,
I think it was chancellor Brandt, once said: “If you’re selling me
something and I’m buying it, we speak in German. But if I’m selling and you’re buying, we speak in your language.” It’s the kind of indicator of motivation that’s inevitable in the modern world. It’s important to keep in mind
that languages differ not only
between different nationalities, but also between different
professional groups. I think that in the future,
there’ll be greater linguistic differences not between the languages
of different nationalities, but between the languages
of different professions and even different corporate groups. We have to be prepared. And the principles that I tried to explain
work in these cases as well, because all the languages
that we talked about are a manifestation of a single language: the language of the Universe
we all live in. Thank you. (Applause)

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