Understanding Cultural Difference in Three Words: Elisa Hörhager at TEDxStrasbourgUniversite

Understanding Cultural Difference in Three Words: Elisa Hörhager at TEDxStrasbourgUniversite


Translator: Robert Tucker
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo Hi everyone. I’m here to wake you up, because
I’m speaking in English about Chinese. So, could get a little complicated, but — I want to take you with me on a search
for traces of culture in language. Because I feel that this
can help us overcome the outer limits of cultural difference. I’m taking Chinese
because I study Chinese, and Chinese is often thought, Chinese characters are often thought of, as very simple pictures representing
what they’re supposed to refer to. because Chinese doesn’t have
a phonetic alphabet. So, if we look at this sign, we can try to guess what it means, and maybe you guessed right,
it’s actually just a painting of water. So, the sign for water looks like water. However, there are many characters
in Chinese which will have much more profound
and poetic meaning, because they actually refer back
to their cultural and historic context. So, I want to take an example,
this is the word “xiang”; it means “to miss someone”. So, it’s composed
of 3 different characters. On the bottom we have heart, which is obvious
when you are missing someone. On the top we have, on the left, a tree,
and on the right, an eye. So, it’s kind of weird.
Why do we have tree and eye or wood and sight together in the word,
which means to miss someone? So to find this out, we have to go back
around 3,000 years in history, and look at a Chinese divination book,
the “I Jing”, which is also called
the “Book of Changes”, I’m sure you’ve all heard of it,
or some of you. And in it there is one sentence,
which is quite banal, and it combines these two words. So, the sentence goes something like this: What we can see most of
on Earth are trees. So, it’s a very banal sentence. But ever since this sentence,
these two characters have been combined in different Chinese words
to have the meaning “to see”. So, if you remember this, we can look at this character
and think of a story. Basically, in my heart,
I’m thinking of a person, I’ve missed this person. I get up, I go to the window,
and look out, hoping to see this person, but all I see is trees. Before I continue to the next character, I wanted to talk about another thing:
Memory. Memory is very important in our connection
to thought and language, and what I notice
when I was intensively studying Chinese, is that my memory started to change. I started to get a photographic memory. That means that
when I remembered words, I started to remember
how they looked on the page. This is something I couldn’t do before. Another thing is,
that when I started to dream in Chinese, which happened around a year after I was
studying the language and living in China, I actually started to have
a different dreamscape, which felt and looked differently
in my dreams. So, these are all just different examples of the neurological
and psychological process which goes on in our brain
when we’re learning a new language. Scientists have done
a lot of research on this, and we found out that language is actually
the fundament of our memory. And so when you learn a new language, actually, you’re also learning
a new way of remembering things, and also you have a new perspective
on what it is you remember. So, the next character
I want to talk about, is one about individuality,
because it means I or me. And before I explain the character
I want to ask — just think about it —
why has China — why have Chinese scientists
and researchers and artists won so few Nobel Prizes? Because the truth is that China has won
remarkably few Nobel Prizes compared to the size of its population. You can count them on your hands. So why is this so? Is it because China is not
an innovative country? I think far from it.
There’s actually a different reason. Let’s take an example, in the 60’s, a Chinese research team developed
a new way of producing synthetic insulin, and they were supposed
to be nominated for the Nobel Prize. Now, the Nobel Prize Committee
asked the Chinese institute to submit the exact names
of the researchers who had made this discovery. And what the noble prize committee got,
was a list of 230 names. So, it was everyone
in that Research Institute, from the director down
to the cleaning lady. (Laughter) So, basically they weren’t nominated
and didn’t win. But this this is a different perspective
on individual achievement, and the way individual achievement
contributes to the group. We can still find it today in,
for example, the political context when harmony is emphasized. Or we find it in the scientific context when we’re talking about the difficulty
of intellectual property rights being put in place in China. So, basically this sign reflects
all of these thoughts. Because it’s composed of two characters: On the left, we have a hand
which is grasping; on the right, I don’t know
if you can recognize it, an ax. So, basically, an ax can be a weapon, but it can also be an instrument, a tool. I interpret this sign as meaning
that an individual, I or me, is someone who actually contributes
to the group, either by working for the group,
or by protecting the group. To explain this sense of community,
I wanted to take another example, which is eating. Food is so important in Asian culture,
we could talk about it until dinner time, but I’m just going to take
this simple example, and say that you’ll never see
a person eating alone in China. So, this is actually something,
if you think about it, we do quite often ourselves. We grab a sandwich on the go,
we have a snack, we eat alone. But in China, there’s a sentence,
there’s a phrase, it’s “吃獨食”,
[Pinyin: chī dú shí] it means “to eat alone” word-for-word,
“to eat alone”. But if you say it about another person, if you say, “This person is eating alone,” it actually means this person
is very egotistical, and only thinks of him or herself. So, if you reflect on that, you notice that eating together
with other people is a responsibility,
a way of taking care of others, but it’s also the prerequisite
to experiencing culinary pleasures. So, to enjoy the food,
you have to eat it with others. That’s why Chinese tables
are mostly round. And even the act of paying for a dinner — When you’re out in a group,
you’ve eaten dinner, they’ll be one person, so: I will pay,
I will pay because — for everyone — because I know that next time,
someone else will pay for everyone. Now, you may think this is of no interest
and it’s like banal, but actually it inscribes the relationship
between me and this group into a continuity, into time, and it produces a stability
and a sustainability to the relationship
I have with this group. Finally, I want to come
to the third character I want to present which is love,
so representing all emotions today. And love is often thought to be universal, so we’re supposed to
recognize it everywhere, and it has the power
to overcome all limits. But, actually, if we start thinking about
the way love is lived and perceived by individuals,
and inside of different cultures, there’s actually a big difference
the way we understand love to be. For example, already in the West,
83% of Americans feel that true love is possible
without physical fulfillment. However, only 34% of French people
agree to this. So, we see then in France,
romantic words, language, literature, is very important in relation to love. Coming back to China, I would say
that it’s almost the opposite, because in China many couples,
and also many married couples, actually, have never told each other the
three magic words “I love you”. If we look at this sign — oh, yeah, by the way, being too romantic
in China, it seems insincere — so guys remember this, could be useful. (Laughter) So, if we come back to the character — you’ve already seen
two different characters — so this one has the hand on top, it’s held over a roof. And under that roof we have one
which we could recognize, it’s the heart — again. And under the heart,
we have the sign for friendship, which is actually two hands
clasped into each other. So, if we take this thing seriously, we understand that
the Chinese notion of love, which is embedded in this word, is a notion of a feeling,
which is living together as a family, and which becomes more valuable over time. This is relevant, because our idea
of romantic love is actually the opposite, it’s something which is special
in the beginning. That’s why, for example,
young couples in China, they will try to marry very fast
after they’ve met each other, maybe even two or three months
after they first met. You will never see a Chinese couple
splitting the bill, each person paying for themselves. Why? Because, already,
they have associated the concept of love with the concept of family being one. Before I conclude, I wanted
to talk about fighting because fighting is important in emotion. And there’s actually a quite — almost — well, many Chinese couples fight
in a special way, which is called “几天不说话”,
[Pinyin: jǐ tiān bù shuō huà] and it means not to speak
for several days — so it actually means
not to speak to each other. It’s the silent treatment. I’ve actually witnessed this
with a middle-aged couple, and they didn’t speak to each other,
after they got angry with each other, for 7 days. So, 7 days they were cooking,
making meals for their kids, doing everything as usual,
except in silence. And after 7 days,
they suddenly started to talk again as if everything was back to normal and they didn’t talk about
what they were upset about or the past. So, it’s just from this type of phenomena, we recognize that, actually,
words and language influence the way,
we, as individuals, feel emotions. And also that words are important,
just as important as objects, they have just as much meaning
for others, and weight, so we should be just as careful
handling our words, as we do when we’re handing
material objects. So, to finish I took this image. This is a pictogram
from the Chinese sign for you, it’s only part of the sign, and it actually represents,
with some imagination maybe we — it represents threads on a loom,
métier à tisser, a cross into a pattern. So, I wanted to take this image
as a symbol of our own personalities, our own personalities made up
of many different strands, and they’re woven into a certain pattern, in the way we grew up
in our family and our culture. And, basically, learning
a different language gifts you the opportunity
to untangle these strands, and weave them again
in your own new and authentic pattern. So, what I want us to remember,
is that learning a language is not learning
another professional skill, it’s actually giving yourself
the opportunity to change. For example,
I’m actually a German-American, and I live in France and in China, and each time
I switch languages or places, I actually show a slightly new side
of my own personality. So, basically, learning
a different culture or different language is an opportunity for change, and I want you to think that if you learn
an exotic language, it might just be your own gateway to a different way of dreaming,
eating and loving. Thanks. (Applause)

2 thoughts on “Understanding Cultural Difference in Three Words: Elisa Hörhager at TEDxStrasbourgUniversite

  1. I'm a Chinese and I did not think so deeply into my own culture as she did. Such a thought-provoking presentation!

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