Time and Language: Can You See the Future?

old fashioned pocket watch showing watch insides

We recently watched the 2016 movie Arrival, which critics are calling one of the best science fiction movies in decades. We enjoyed it as a film that tries to envision how our planet’s politics might play into first contact with alien visitors. We also liked how the movie focused on how language intersects with culture. As regional coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year, a high school student exchange program placing 2,500+ students in the U.S. every year, we work all year long with students from around the world who are trying to understand our culture and speak our language. We know that to understand one, you need to understand the other.

We express our culture through language, and our language defines how we interact with our world. It’s hard to separate one from the other, or to determine “which came first?” Learning another language is not just about learning the words for “person,” “table,” and “animal.” Arrival shows us the truth of this statement. In the movie, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) works to translate words and concepts so that humans and the aliens can talk to each other. As she struggles to learn the aliens’ language, she realizes that the key is that the aliens view time very differently than we do. This view of the universe winds its way throughout the aliens’ language. The way they express time enables them to see pieces of the future; as Louise learns the language, she learns the culture — and so sees her own future.

Fantastical, beyond our reality, and make-believe — yes. It is, after all, a fictional story about meeting aliens from another world. But is it really so fantastical to think that people from different cultures will view abstract concepts such as time, place, and distance differently? In a way, Arrival describes the reality of language and culture on our own planet. It’s about viewing the entire universe the way the other person views it and realizing that this changes how you view your own universe.

Viewing time differently isn’t as fantastical as you might think. Some cultures (and, therefore, some languages) express time as a means of looking to the future — “future-in-front” languages as linguist Panos Athanasopoulos discusses in this article. Native English speakers visualize the future as being ahead of us and the past as behind us, already done and gone. But not all cultures on Earth look at time that way, as Athanasopoulos describes:

[F]or speakers of Aymara (spoken in Peru), looking ahead means looking at the past. The word for future (qhipuru) means “behind time” – so the spatial axis is reversed: the future is behind, the past is ahead. The logic in Aymara appears to be this: we can’t look into the future just like we can’t see behind us. The past is already known to us, we can see it just like anything else that appears in our field of vision, in front of us.

The study conducted by Athanasopoulos and colleagues implies that the language we speak will affect whether we believe that time is passing slower or faster. He submits that bilingual people “go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously.” I find the idea fascinating — that one can go between such different world views just by speaking another language. He also argues that going back and forth between different languages regularly “confers advantages on the ability to learn and multitask, and even long term benefits for mental well-being.” I like that idea, but I’ll leave that for others to debate.

What I want to leave readers with today is just this, whether you are the host family trying to understand the student in your home, the student trying to learn how to be part of a new environment, the teacher trying to help, or the parent back home watching your child from afar. If you really work at not just translating word by word but rather try to see the why and how of another language, you will come to view your own universe differently. That might be a bit unsettling … but it’s exciting, too. Moreover, seeing how the ‘other’ really thinks can only be positive in establishing friendships and long-term relationships. That seems like a good idea to me.

 

Scrabble word future

The Sun Did Rise Today, and Will Rise Again Tomorrow

US flag in cornfield

We wanted to share a message we sent to the exchange students in our region this morning…

Dear Students,

The U.S. presidential election is over. It’s been a wild ride, one that you have been privileged to witness — yes, privileged, no matter which candidate you were hoping would win. It has been one of the most contentious, divisive campaigns this country has seen…believe it or not, it’s not the most contentious or the most divisive election in our history. It has brought to the surface the “high’s” of living in a democracy, and, we’re sad to say, it also has brought out some “low’s.” You may live with a host family who are rejoicing this morning, or you may live with a host family who are worrying about the future. All of your host families, regardless of who they voted for, are citizens of this democracy.

It’s the future we want you to think about, as well as the present. Now, the next phase begins. This, too, is part of the “American experiment” — what happens after a major election, even when half the population voted for someone else? You are here to witness that. Over the next few months, you will see the peaceful transition of power to a completely different group of leaders; President Obama noted this morning in his address to the nation that “the peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks our democracy.”

You will see peaceful disagreement with the policies of those leaders. You will, no doubt, also see less-than-peaceful disagreements. As President Obama also noted, democracy can be “messy.” The divisiveness mentioned above is significant, and it’s serious. It means we have a lot of work to do, both here in the U.S. as the new Administration takes office — as well as abroad, with you, your families, and your home cultures. You are part of what it’s all about.

We encourage all our students to talk to their host families about the meaning of the U.S. election and the meaning of democracy, open political discussion, free speech, and civil disobedience. All of these issues are part of what we hope you are learning during your exchange. Talk to your local program coordinator. Talk to us, too. As you no doubt have learned, Americans love to talk about these issues. What’s most important after yesterday is that it we all must continue to talk about these issues, and more.

 

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Sending Your Teenager to Turkey on Exchange: This Family Says Yes

I wanted to share an article that appeared in our local paper, The Oregonian, today:

Exchange Student Heads to Turkey With Open Mind

The article has so many valid points about why international cultural exchanges are valuable, perhaps even more today than ever before. It’s not just about an American teenager learning about a culture outside our own borders, although it is about that. It’s not just about the value of a young American woman learning about a majority Muslim county’s culture, although it is about that.

blue mosque turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

It’s about stepping outside our comfort zones and realizing that you need to be somewhere in order to really understand it. It’s about realizing that our own misconceptions about other cultures and countries are bouncing right back at us, when we have students coming in this direction who are asking whether the U.S. is a safe place. It’s about finding out the reality of who we all are.

Are YOU researching beyond the headlines?

 

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

What’s More Important, Our Differences or Our Similarities?

I found myself agreeing with an article I read this morning and thought it was worth a quick share on this Friday afternoon. We work hard in our role as exchange coordinators to get our students to recognize differences between their home country’s culture and their host culture here in Oregon and the United States. It’s important, for example, to know how to approach someone new appropriately, and to recognize if your own culture and language are direct or indirect in communication style. But we also try to get the teens and their host families to see similarities and common interests. It’s a good way to start communication and to begin developing relationships.

Image courtesy of Andy Molinsky
Image courtesy of Andy Molinsky

Read the article, and let us know what you think!

Focusing on Similarities – not Differences – is the Key To Crossing Cultures

Choosing Where to Go in the U.S. – Good or Bad Idea?

We receive questions from current or future exchange students asking for advice on … well, almost everything. An increasingly common question is whether students should ask for a particular state or region of the U.S. for their exchange year. We have seen an increase in the past couple of years in these “state requests” from student applicants, often for well-known states like California, New York, and Florida.

What does this mean? Is it a good idea?

What It Means

The idea makes sense at first glance. If you are going to spend 5 or 10 months somewhere, why not  have some say about where? The reality, though, is more complex.

Oregon - but not Portland
Oregon – but not Portland

High school students come to the U.S. on one of two visas: F-1 or J-1. (We’ve written about some of the differences between F-1 and J-1 visas for high school exchange here and here.) If you have an F-1 visa, you must apply to and be accepted by a particular school. Many schools have academic and language requirements as well as limits on how many international students they can accept each year. F-1 students also generally pay tuition to the school they attend, even if it is a public school. Certainly, you can apply to schools in states that appeal to you. But even an F-1 visa student may face limitations on where to attend school.

Students coming to the U.S. on the more traditional J-1 visa generally do not choose where they will be placed. The exchange organization works to find a host family, and informs students where they will live once the host family has been screened for suitability and the local school has confirmed that there is an available exchange student opening. Some programs do allow students to express a preference for a particular state or region of the country (for example, “Southwestern U.S.”). We don’t have solid data, but it does seem that students may be taking advantage of this opportunity more often than in the past.

Is it a Good Idea?

Louisiana - but not New Orleans
Louisiana – but not New Orleans

The primary advantage that students and their families see in expressing a geographic preference is that the program will focus on that state or region when working to place the student. Students and their parents sometimes feel they know that certain regions in the country are better to live in — or else they feel they know which regions are worse to live in. Perhaps they have visited Florida on vacation, or perhaps a friend spent time in New York, and so they feel those are good places. They have not heard much if anything about Iowa or South Carolina, and don’t want to go somewhere they know nothing about. Parents want their child to spend the semester or year in an “interesting” location.

We think, sometimes, that both parents and teens are missing the big picture. What does it mean to be “interesting,” after all? The truth is that what people “know” is not always accurate. Teens and parents from other parts of the world may feel that they “know” that Texas could be interesting and a positive experience. They think they “know” that Missouri will be boring and a negative experience. They have heard of one and not the other — and as humans, we tend to make decisions based only on what we think we know. We all do this. It’s human nature not to reach out and embrace what we don’t know. Those misperceptions and misunderstandings, after all, are part of the reason why the U.S. Department of State so strongly encourages cultural exchanges.

Fred B Sharon mansion, Davenport, Iowa
A mansion you might see in Davenport, Iowa

Those misperceptions explain why we see that broad areas of the U.S. do not receive many state request preferences. California, New York, and Florida are considered cool; Iowa, Kentucky, and Arkansas are not. Students will often list states on either of the U.S. coasts, but avoid most states in-between. That’s a large percentage of the country going unnoticed — or being ignored.

It’s important to understand, when evaluating geographic preferences, that host families are not easy to find. For students who have listed preferences, the exchange organization will limit the search for a host family to that state or region, which means a smaller pool of possible host family opportunities. Could this work out so you are placed with a great host family exactly where you want to spend a year? Yes. Are you taking a risk? Absolutely.

In our experience, the likelihood of a successful exchange year can increase dramatically when a student and host family start out with similar interests. It’s part of the matching process that local coordinators work on for months before students arrive, seeking—as much as possible—to find the “right” family for each student. By telling the exchange organization not to look in most of the country, a student may miss being matched with an ideal host family based on interests and other characteristics.

What you might see in Michigan
What you might see in Michigan

It’s also important to recognize that students often do not end up going to the state or region they expressed a preference for. It’s a preference, not a guarantee. At some point during the placement season, the program will cancel the preferences to try and make sure they find a host family for every student.

You might ask: if every student does end up being placed, why are geographic preferences a risk?

  • As noted, a great match might have been passed over during the months that the geographic preferences were in effect.
  • Once the preference is dropped, many host families worry about choosing a student who has said they want to be placed somewhere else. They see it as a bad omen.
  • Students sometimes start their exchange year so disappointed that they didn’t get to live where they had requested that they have difficulty accepting their eventual host family and host community assignment.

In Summary…

We recommend that if you are considering a geographic preference, do some research. Ask yourself why you want to list a particular state or region. Research the state to find out more about it. Research states and regions you don’t know anything about to find out how great they can be. Don’t assume you know what you need to know.

Talk to your exchange program and make sure you understand the implications of selecting a geographic preference. Ask the hard questions! Even if you get the state you think you want, it might not be the place you think it is. If you like cities, you might think, “I’ll ask for New York so I can be near New York City, or I’ll ask for California so I can live in Los Angeles.” Yet the truth is that most host families do not live in larger cities. Students who ask for California generally end up in suburbs, small towns, or farming communities, perhaps hundreds of miles from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Students who ask for Florida generally don’t live near Disney World®. Students who ask for New York may be placed near the Canadian border.

What you might see in Utah
What you might see in Utah

In our experience, the best way to increase the chance of a successful exchange year is to take the experience as it comes. Exchange students are here to learn about U.S. culture, see what school is like for U.S. teenagers, and learn what it is like to be a normal teenager in ordinary U.S. families. If you’re willing to make the decision to leave your home for a semester or school year, you’ve shown that you are willing to leap into the unknown. You might end up in Alabama, Iowa, Oregon, or Arizona — and you might find out that those are interesting places, where you can have experiences you never dreamed about. Allow yourself to be open to the new experience. Make the leap!

 

Photo credits: Thinkstock.com; Pixabay.com; Aaron Burden; Drew Hays.