I wanted to share a metaphor I’ve thought about for quite a bit regarding language learning and culture. If you’re not familiar, the above image is a version of the sphere grid from the 2001 video game Final Fantasy X. Other than being an amazing game with cutting-edge graphics and a great story (although I never finished it! I did read the game guide over and over, though.), FFX’s sphere grid was an innovative leveling system that was really fascinating to explore.
Like with most RPGs, the player controls a number of different characters that form the player’s team. Each of these main characters is allotted a portion of the sphere grid, represented above by the blocks of color. Depending on the particular character’s position on the sphere grid, he or she automatically specialized in certain skills. For example, Lulu’s section is heavy on black magic, Yuna’s focuses on white magic, and Titus’s focuses on attack. As you play through the game, you pick up different spheres, and you insert the spheres into the grid as you go along, and this gets you new abilities for those characters.
The really cool part is that each character neighbors two or three other characters’ portions of the grid. This means that, as you progress through the game and along the sphere grid, you can decide to venture into another character’s territory and gain the skills that came naturally to the other character. This allows a lot of personalization in how you develop your main characters.
I personally think this makes for a cool metaphor for learning new languages, particularly to experience other cultures’ literature and other cultural media. We all start out with a native language and a native culture (maybe you have two or three, but let’s not break down the metaphor yet). Your native language and culture provide you a lens with which to view the world and interpret it. You gain values through literature, art, film, myth, religion, etc. You learn which images are prevalent in your society. And perhaps one day, you make your own contribution to your culture’s media, using those same images, allusions, and themes that run so deeply through everything you know.
However, cultures certainly do not exist in a vacuum. As an English-speaker, the languages of Western Europe are physically near the British Isles, and their cultures have continuously influenced and affected English-speaking cultures. French immediately comes to mind, as does German. Both literatures and philosophies have greated affected English-speaking societies. French is especially near and dear to any English-speaker’s culture through the Norman Invasion and the language’s subsequent status among the nobility. Even King Arthur’s roots are in France, not England! And, as an American, Spanish also comes to mind, considering Spanish colonization and the huge number of Latin-American Spanish speakers that live in the country.
I like thinking of these languages as “bordering” English on the sphere grid. With a good knowledge of Anglo-American literature and culture under my belt, I can then venture into French territory, or German, or Spanish. I can learn the language and then experience their literature and philosophy. I can broaden the lens with which I see the world. Without learning Spanish, I would have never known even the names of Spanish or Latin-American authors and poets (except for Cervantes, perhaps), but I’m slowly becoming acquainted with many of these.
Of course, the metaphor does eventually break down. You can learn more than one language, first of all, and you’re also not limited to learning only the languages that most influence your native culture. I can learn languages from the other side of the world, if I want. This would be akin to hopping to the other side of the sphere grid, and, as far as I know, that’s not possible in FFX 🙂
Either way, it’s very limiting to stay firmly within our own portion of the sphere grid, and I think this is definitely a problem in English-speaking societies, since we hardly have to branch out and read books in translation, much less learn a new language. But the knowledge and empathy gained from entering into another’s culture, even if you never visit the country, is a wonderful part of the human experience, and I would love to see more cultural exploration like this. Expand your portion of the sphere grid!