Two languages are better than one by Mark Peckett

AAUKimage1A recent study by psychologists from the University of Chicago found that not only those who were fluent in another language, but that those who were merely “exposed” to one in early life showed better understanding of others.

They tested their theory by asking different sets of children – bilingual, exposed and monolingual – to move an object from an adult’s eye line.  In the test, there were three toy cars – a large, medium and small one – with the smallest being clearly hidden from the adult.  When the adult said to the child, “I see a small car” and asked them to move it, 75 per cent of the bilingual or exposed groups moved the medium car – the smallest the adult could see – compared to just half of the monolingual group.

The study seems to suggest that in order to understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective. Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective taking.

Simply put, learning something doesn’t just expand our horizons, it expands us.

I have written elsewhere of my antipathy to sports.  My upbringing just did not encourage an interest in it.  I learned to look down my nose at the “muddied oafs” who played and the fans who watched them.  I certainly didn’t engage actively in sport myself.  For a time, I believe I held the record for avoiding games lessons at my school.

As I got older, like most teens, I did judo for a while.  This was in the 1960s and we all thought we would be James Bond or Batman after three lessons.  I came back to Judo in my early twenties, but I can’t say I enjoyed it any more.  It was still all a little to Saturday afternoon sport for me, followed by a drink down the pub.  Of course, the fact I broke my collar bone twice in six months may have had something to do with it.

It was around this time that I ran across aikido (in the form of the book “Aikido” by Kisshomaru Ueshiba) and I knew this was something different than “sport” and that it was for me.  Later I was fortunate to find a class with an excellent teacher, and what it has done for me over the years, apart from giving me a little skill in aikido, is to broaden my horizons, which is to say, broaden me.  It has made me more appreciative of sport.

For a while I became quite the basketball fan; in fact, I was one of those fans I used to despise, roaring on my own team, disparaging their opponents and fans, and, of course, abusing the referees.  In my defence, I would say, it was always good humoured – well almost always – and during the bad seasons with a poor team, it was the banter that kept us going.

At the most basic level, doing aikido made me appreciative of physical prowess (and the pleasure of working hard at something and making progress, albeit slowly in my case).  And it taught me to enjoy the pleasure of a drink in the pub after a physically demanding session.

So what I’m saying is I was raised in a culturally monolingual way.  That is to say, that I was taught to regard mental effort as better than physical effort, or rather, physical effort for fun and/or competition.  You could argue that it was a class thing.   My world view was white and middle class.  As I grew older, left home and went to college, obviously my perspective changed as I was exposed to people of different political persuasions, religions and ethnicities.  I became more left wing and more inclusive, but I would argue that it was largely an intellectual change.

It was aikido that was responsible for completing the change, because it involved not just the mind, but also the heart and the gut: the three tantien of Chinese medicine, the intellectual, the emotional and the instinctive.  The lowest, physically speaking exists slightly below and in from the navel, is the “ocean of vitality” and changes chi, the life force that permeates and links everything, into physical strength.  The “crimson palace” situated in the centre of the chest at the level of the heart changes energy into passion and emotions, like love and hate.  It is what makes us human.  Finally, the “cave of the original spirit”, situated in the middle of the head is responsible changing life energy into thought processes.

You don’t have to believe in these concepts, but the idea behind them makes perfect sense; when your intellect, emotions and instincts are working in perfect harmony, you tend to feel better.

Aikido encourages you to do this.  I would like to return to Terry Dobson’s translation of awase, which we usually refer to as “blending.” He says “agreeing”.  Receiving uke with kaiten (shifting the hips to avoid attack) or tenkan (pivoting 180 degrees to avoid attack), both involve the same thing – turning to look in the same direction as your attacker and aligning your centre with theirs.

This is physically doing what I experienced when I was eighteen, appreciating that other people looked at the world with a different point of view.  But this time it is not merely an intellectual experience, my whole body is engaged.  However, if my emotions are out of control (if I am scared, or angry) or if my mind is elsewhere, the technique is never perfect.

So to me, the essence of aikido is how it broadens the people who practise it.  It gives us a whole new language to use in our relationships with other people.  It teaches us not to think of people as opponents, or to respond to them aggressively.  It doesn’t ask us to appreciate their situation intellectually, it literally shows us to see what they see and to treat them with the same kindness we treat ourselves.

Aikido may not be another language in the normal sense of the word, but it is a language the whole world should learn to speak.