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Cultural Grammars

by Sara Swenson

A golden Buddha statue foregrounds a stack of Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

A golden Buddha statue foregrounds a stack of Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

December 1, 2017

I teach English lessons at a pagoda on Mondays. The lessons are my way of saying thank you to the nuns who have offered me their time, books, stories, wisdom, and friendship. Two weeks ago, we had what I thought was a grammatical debate. We were practicing two meanings of the phrase, “I must.” On one hand, “I must,” could mean, “I am compelled to…” or “I have to…” [phải in Vietnamese]. On the other hand, “I must,” could mean, “perhaps,” or “I speculate that…” [có lẽ]. Some sample sentences we talked about were: “I must be tired” to diagnose one’s lack of concentration, or “I must be patient,” to urge oneself to be kind to others. We joked about switching the registers of meaning by saying, “I must be smart” or “I must be generous,” to compliment oneself rather than to compel oneself to better behavior. One of the nuns brought our class back to task by offering a sincere example. I wrote on the board as she read her example aloud: “I must be happy, because I am a human being.”

I told her that was a very good example for “must” as a compelling word, but asked if she also had an example of “must” as a speculative word. I misunderstood her sentence to mean, “I have to be happy, because I am a human being.” My interpretation of her response assumed an implicit comparison between humans and other animals. I took for granted that human beings would be considered a “higher” life form, and therefore we should be happy to have been born as humans.

The nun corrected me by saying that she did mean to offer her example speculatively. She patiently came to the board and charted out the differences between two types of beings [chúng sanh]: sentient [hữu tình] and non-sentient [vô tình]. (The other students declared a snack break while the two of us were contemplating the nature of the universe.) She explained that human beings are part of the category “that has life” such as men and women, dogs and cats, compared with things like plants, fans, and chalkboards. To “have life,” she explained, meant that we had “thoughts” and “feelings.” Her example sentence was intended to mean, “Perhaps we feel happiness because we are sentient beings.”

I was struck by the gaping contrast between our interpretations of her words. This one sentence revealed our very different orientations toward what we assumed about feelings, humankind, and other living creatures. Our conversation made me appreciate the importance of nuance and checking one’s assumptions as a researcher.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. The following week, I visibly overthought one student’s response with a dramatically raised eyebrow and furrowed forehead, before attributing her unusual translation to, “cultural differences...” The classroom broke out in laughter. “PhD Students must always have headaches!” one student joked. As they say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The importance of spending extended time studying language and developing deep research relationships is to help us identify these different moments!

Contact Information

Sara Swenson