The Power of Language

I’ve been struck this week with how disappointed I am in myself for knowing so little Dutch this far in the game. Though I wasn’t able to take a Dutch class while I was here, I’ve found that instead of taking advantage of learning a few more words or phrases in Dutch, I’ve tuned it out, which is terrible! One of the most incredible things about living in Belgium is that you may meet and live with a number of people who speak 2-4 different languages. Though I’ve met people who speak a variety of other languages here, the big four in Belgium that I’ve noticed are Dutch, French, German, and English. Thus, it is important for me to recognize how significant and powerful that fact is. I am surrounded by thousands of people who can communicate in at least 3 different languages!

The power of language has particularly struck me this week as I’ve sat in on discussions in my classes about language as not only a representation of culture, but also as a performative act. Not only does knowing someone’s language(s) allow you to learn more about their culture and habits, it changes the way you understand how and why they communicate the way they do. I myself am using my native language to tell you all about my adventures! And why do I write these adventures? Well, I guess one reason is the hope that someone finds my ramblings interesting… :)

However, understanding not only the power of self-expression but why we choose to use language to express ourselves is extremely important. Authors don’t write books just to tell a story. Often, they are using language to express ideas or arguments that will eventually lead to some kind of change. For instance, Herman Melville didn’t write the 600-page Moby-Dick simply to enlighten us on how to catch a whale, and how a few men tried to do so. Melville used this form of communication to discuss knowledge, fate, good and evil, death, the list goes on. We use our language to express our thoughts, ideas, and what we want to change in the world.

One of my professors posed a question in our class this week: what is the connection between an act of terrorism and literature? Due to the fact that we were 15 minutes away from a city locked down due to the terrorist attacks in Paris, discussion of the events of the past few weeks has been present in our everyday lives. In our class, we discussed the fact that they both operate as performative acts: terrorism is, through one or many violent actions, attempting to change the world to what that person (or persons) may see fit. It is deciding that their idea of the world is how it should be, and they will make that change right now, with one or many actions of violence.

In a very similar way, language and literature are performative acts: we write down our ideas of what is wrong, or how we can create a change in this world. In our attempt to create meaning, we challenge the idea that violent actions and brutality have more power than our own words. And it is amazing to see how many different languages and cultures have raised up their voices to challenge the forces of violence.

Though I may only understand a few phrases, one of the most beautiful things to see come out of the brutal events of the last month is how people in the Leuven and other Belgian communities in particular have responded in compassion. We may all be from different backgrounds, cultures, and we may speak different languages, but we all use these differences to further ideas of love and sacrifice than those of hate and violence.


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