The Himba tribe in Namibia has a particularity due to its language. They are considered “blue blind”.
Stop and read that again – “blue blind”. – What does that mean? To answer it, we need to give some initial context.
The Himba, this particular tribe in Northern Namibia in Africa, is one of the few native tribes on the planet that still has minimal direct contact with modernity. It’s like they live in a bubble in a past time.
At the beginning of 2010, a group of researchers from Birkbeck University in London conducted a study in which they invited a group of inhabitants of this tribe to sit in front of a screen to identify the element with a different color in a series of similar elements.
In this case, they were shown 12 squares. 11 of these were green, and one was blue.
The result was fascinating.
Most of the respondents could not correctly identify which of those 12 squares was different.
Many of those surveyed were hunters who had fed their families and communities for decades. Their survival skills were undoubtedly fantastic, however, they couldn’t detect a color change in a simple “Find the Different Piece” exercise. Not because they were not intelligent, but probably because in their language, there was still no word for that color.
This can help us deduce that:
“A language is a tool that helps us tell stories to ourselves, stories that over time become our realities.”
So what does it mean to be bilingual?
Being bilingual, trilingual, polyglot and other similar words means that you have the ability to communicate in languages other than the one you have learned since you were a child.
To simplify our conversation, we’ll use the word “bilingual” to refer to a person who speaks more than one language, regardless of the number of languages spoken.
So, in essence, being bilingual means being able to communicate in a language other than the native one.
This communication doesn’t only occur between people with different native languages in a bi-directional communication. Being bilingual also pertains to your own interaction with information in a different language, for example reading a magazine, listening to a song, or watching a movie. As we will see later, it’s even possible to be bilingual by having an internal conversation with ourselves.
Being “Bilingual” Within Your Own Language
And now you may be wondering:
“How can I be bilingual in my own language?”
Playing with words is extremely fun, and we have been doing it since we were children with playful languages such as the language called “jeringoza”, referred to above. So why stop us?
If you have ever been to a medical appointment in which the doctor gave you his diagnosis and, in your mind, you thought: “What language is he speaking to me in?”, don’t feel bad!
Personally, I’ve been in that situation many times, and not just at doctor’s appointments. It also happened to me when talking to engineers, application programmers, architects, painters, musicians, entrepreneurs, personal trainers, dieticians, neuroscientists, and others, to name a few.
My level of understanding regarding the concepts that people from those areas talk about was zero initially. In fact, many times I felt inferior for not being able to understand what they were saying. But, that does not mean to sit idly by, but rather, it’s a motivation to follow our curiosity and learn the terms, concepts and basic jargon of the areas that catch our attention.
By following curiosity and deciding to learn, at least the basics of other areas outside those we consider familiar, we begin to use concepts within our own language that we did not know and that, when discovered, expand the limits of our mind to greater distances.
Two Tips for Bilinguals (and Aspiring)
1. You don’t need to become an expert
Don’t let the idea of “not becoming an expert” in a language weaken your initial curiosity. Let me repeat it: you don’t have to be an expert in a language to be considered “Bilingual”.
Leaving aside the ego, you only need to learn the words and expressions necessary to be able to understand the minimum necessary, and in a certain field.
2. Use the right tools, at the right time.
As we mentioned before, languages are mental tools and, as such, it’s necessary to learn when to use our tools according to the work that needs to be done. For example:
- In an example of tourism, if we are in a town where only one language is spoken, and it is not ours, we can use their language to communicate.
- In the work context, maybe you have co-workers who speak Indi and you speak Spanish, if so, most likely you both speak English. So, this third language becomes the communication bridge because it is the common denominator between both.
- On the other hand, how about a situation where you need to use certain language to help you think more clearly? In my case, I use English when I need to think about topics related to business and technology, and I use Spanish when I want to examine topics related to emotions. For some reason, using these languages in these different contexts facilitates my cognitive process.
As we said before, it’s not necessary to be an expert in a certain language. It’s enough to know how to navigate successfully in this field, to begin with, and if curiosity calls us to internalize, then we will surely become experts and we will have a fluent language, whatever the subject, including languages.
So what’s the language you would like to learn? Chemistry, mathematics, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, business? Let me know in the comments!
Acquiring a new language, even small parts of that language, is one of the best practices we can have since it allows us to observe what we consider to be “reality” through different lenses, just as we do when we watch a 3D movie where it’s necessary to use special glasses to enjoy the show.
Now, let us ask ourselves: Could it be said that the inhabitants of the Himba Tribe are bilingual, after sharing with them the meaning of the color blue? And, better yet: What if we were the ones who are part of a tribe that does not perceive something that others perceive?
Whatever your motivation to learn new languages, including those from fields other than your own, please don’t hold back.
Keep Learning and diving into new languages!