Have you tried Language-Bending?

Did you ever wish you could firebend like Uncle Iroh? Airbend like Aang? Metalbend like Toph? Then maybe you should think about learning a language.

Learning a language is a lot like learning to bend any of the four elements.

Just like many of you out there, my family and I have been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender ever since Netflix managed to get it put up (and save their revenue numbers, let’s be real). As we have rewatched this series I have had a whole slua of thoughts, but one big one is the connection that it has with language.

Besides the incredible amount of world building, character development, and awesome plot line, there is a basic element of awesomeness about this show and it’s fictional universe: people can control and bend the natural elements, namely Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. With gestures of the human body and movements of the will, people can make the natural elements conform to their desires. It is the subject of pure awe and wonder. I imagine you, as I, feel incredible envy when watching this. How awesome would that kind of power be?

Of course, one has to walk away sad from watching this series (not just because of the emotions that it really wrenches out of the audience) but because you know you will never be able to have that kind of power in the real world…

or can you?

Let me now draw a number of comparisons between language and the ability to bend the elements.

It is an ability confined to a specific group of people. The basic premise of the show is that if a person can bend the elements, it is a trait that is passed on genetically. So you end up with not a conglomeration of different element benders in the same place, but a divided set of nations, each with it’s own relationship to one of the elements (Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Water Tribe, Air Nomads). Additionally, a bender can only bend one element. If you are a bender in the Earth Kingdom, you likely are only an Earthbender.

Languages are also (typically) confined to a specific group of people. It is passed on, albeit non-genetically, from parents to children. There are of course exceptions which I will address later on, but the principal of language is that it has existence first within a defined community. Typically, also, we see that amongst most nations there is one overriding language that is either the norm or is simply used in the majority.

It has a unique manifestation within the people that use it. Bending is not any sort of willy-nilly movement of the body – it is a cultivated art. It is clear from the show that for a bender to become a master of their ability, they need to cultivate purposeful forms and learn to direct their abilities through refined and designed forms of body movements. Once someone has really learned the rules and principles of it, they can push the limits and even come up with new expressions of bending (like how Toph creates metalbending).

Scientists know that different language users have different biases, or skews, that affect how they view the world. More than that, the body has to become accustomed to contorting features of the mouth so as to produce specific sounds of a language. Every language is made up of different structures, and the body has to conform to these various structures. These language-specific conformations become so ingrained in the users that the users don’t even think consciously about how they do it – it becomes like breathing.

It has a unique relationship to culture. Even though not everyone is a bender in each of the societies, the nature of the element has a specific relationship to the people that, at the very least, live around it. It affects the way they dress, what kinds of values they hold, non-bending rituals, nomenclature, everything. In many ways, bending becomes a lens through which the entire people sees themselves.

Language, conversely, is used by nearly every single human being within a society. But certainly language is intimately married with every cultural expression found within the society that uses it. Language becomes the condensed expression of that culture, and is the entry point for looking into the culture and society that uses it.

While each bending ability is unique, it is centered in a common motion. At one point, Aang (the main character, the Avatar), learns from a Guru about chakras and about how spiritual energy flows through the person. It’s a bunch of hullabaloo in real-world terms, but the Guru gives a lot of insight into how this fictional universe is constructed. At one point, especially, he teaches Aang that even though people are bending different material substances, all benders access their abilities and manifest their abilities through the same motion of energy. Essentially, the stuff that makes up the different elements aren’t really all that different at a core level (so, atoms). The biggest difference comes in how that energy is moved by the bender, and from the bender’s relationship to that general energy.

When looking at language, here is the comparison. All human beings are using the same thing when they accomplish language – reasoning. This core ability to reason is common across all of the languages. They are the physical manifestations of rational thought and ability, but are different in how the language speaker moves these reasonings, and from the speaker’s relationship to rational knowledge.

There are, however, some important differences.

Firstly, as I mentioned, not everyone in each nation is a bender of their affiliated element, but every member of a society is a user of that society’s language (generally). But this pales in comparison to a larger difference:

In the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender, you can only ever bend one element, if you can at all. The story follows the path of Aang, the Avatar. Aang is unique because as the Avatar he can bend not just one, but all four elements (he in fact has a responsibility to do so). Beyond the primary envy of the viewer of wanting to bend any of the elements, their is an additional envy of being able to bend all of the elements.

Unlike people within the universe of Avatar, we in the real world can revel in the fact that language, the most approximate form of bending we could be capable of, is not strictly limited to any one person or group.

Make no mistake, learning a language is a lot like learning to bend an element (in the sense that it takes much time and effort), but the fact is that you can do it! Not only do all humans have equal access to the beauty of our first languages, but we can also learn any other language.

The universe of Avatar only has four nations, for the four elements. Comparatively, we would say we have something like 6,500 “nations.” That’s a lot of languages!

If you have ever watched the show, if you have ever marveled at the power of these benders and said “Man, I wish I could do that,” then learning a language might be exactly what you are looking for. If you have always wondered what the point of learning a language even was, then look no further than here: the majesty and beauty of learning a language is the same majesty and beauty that you can observe in the benders of the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

P.S. Don’t know how to get started with learning a language? Click here to find out how!

What does St. John Henry Cardinal Newman Have to Say About Learning a Language?

Portrait of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1881

In his Idea of a University, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman expounds on a great many ideas, the principal of which is that a University is meant to teach someone about universal knowledge, to raise the mind of an individual to a new view and perspective of the world. Subordinate to this principle is that this type of education is only possible if all realms of knowledge are included, especially theology and religion. Reason informs us well enough about the existence of God, and faith and divine revelation shows how He is present with us, but education means studying the science, the knowledge, of God as much as studying the science of anything else.


Furthermore he argues that education must not be pursued for pragmatic means. If one seeks and receives education for the purpose of improving their skill in some trade or task then that education becomes subordinated to that trade or task. This type of education is fine, but Newman argues that universal education, education about the universal, needs to be a good in its own sake. It is good to know more about the universe, and therefore universal education to achieve the knowledge is also good for its own sake. To subordinate menial worldly tasks to this more universal good is a subversion of that good, and inappropriate. Knowledge that comes to be possessed by someone forever changes that person and increases their good. Useful knowledge increases the worldly pleasure of a man, but universal knowledge, properly useless knowledge, improves the intellect and the ability of an intellect to reason, and this is a good achieved for its own sake. He refers to classical thinkers, who highlight the fact that once man has fulfilled his basic needs he is inclined to contemplate, and universal education fosters that contemplation and ability to do it like no other. Universal education, liberal education, is meant to draw us out of our tic for tac worldly perspective and shows us the higher ways of the world.

Seeing this, before looking at language education, one may be convinced that language education, especially foreign language education, is a subject matter of extrinsic and pragmatic goods first before all. But Newman goes on to specifically address the education around language, and his thoughts are relevant to why someone would learn a language different from their own. Comparing his outlook on education to that of his contemporaries, he juxtaposes education for the advancement of the useful arts with education for the cultivation of the mind.

Thinking about language at all, Newman highlights how individually unique language is. Where does it work, first? As a cultivation of the mind or as a useful art? Language has a unique power as it actually accompanies reason in the process of its function. He calls to mind the meaning of the Greek logos, which means both speech and reason. These elements, he says, are deeply intertwined and inseparable. When understanding the nature of words, it is important, in his opinion, to recognize the inherent bond they share with reason. He claims that his contemporaries wish to have separated these two elements and wish to say that one man may be good at reason while the other at waxing words, but he shoots back that such a divide speaks as them being separated, while in fact language should be “the lawful wife in her own house” [married to reason].

The combination of language to reason, and the fact that every man’s reason stands to a degree on its own, pushes Newman to say that language is therefore individual and unique. As it combines between person and person, there is still the notion that words form first from certain people and then spread outwards. This is no more true than in literature, in the writing of any certain author. The language chosen by that specific author may have objectively good notions and principles, but the uniqueness of the language also stands out and is necessary for understanding the author on a deep level. For the recipients of such a text, it is important, in Newman’s mind, for them to approach that text in the text’s original language. By seeing and understanding the initial language, students, or the recipients, will have much more to understand out of the text.

So language is not just a useful art or cultivation of the mind – it serves in the middle. But language mediating thoughts is no simple notion. Words are literally the vehicles between soul and body, cementing things, that are first brought into the mind, into the brain as well. Without language there is no mediation of reason. Newman’s concept of language heavily relies on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and there are multiple premises at hand to understand it. The first premise is that worldly thing exist in a unique combination of act and potency, the act of a thing being its abstract form. The second premise is that human comprehension is a matter of possessing forms within an individual’s mind, within the intellect of the soul. A third premise, not explicitly stated within Newman and not carefully expounded on within Thomas Aquinas’ work, is the notion that a human possessed form is called a quiddity.

The idea of a quiddity is where I believe Newman to situate the uniqueness of language, and what necessitates the study of foreign language for liberal education. According to Aquinas it is possible for someone to understand a word but attribute the wrong form to it, or vice versa. Naturally when learning about things in the world, humans do not understand them perfectly from the beginning. It is necessary for them to, over time, compose or divide forms that they have learned in order to perfect their knowledge. It is this that a liberal education does best, per the opinion of Newman. Consequentially for language, though, it means that the forms that we possess in our minds may not perfectly resemble the forms of the world. One comes to possess a general form of dog, not specific to any one species, as is proper to the existence of a form, but that form may not perfectly be the form of dog that exists in the world. It may lack certain aspects, like an understanding of the powers of organs within actual form of dog, or it may have additional aspects if a dog has never been closely observed by someone, such as the power within a dog to fly (which is simply not true). If 100% of a form exists in the world, the quiddity attains a certain percentage of that form as is seen and understood by the person perceiving it. It is this quiddity that St. Thomas says is the form of ‘material’ words, and it is the uniqueness of the quiddity and the many quiddities of words that gives rise to the uniqueness of language that Newman discusses.

Each language, then, presents a certain amount of a unique perspective on the world. Each language in its communication and existence within human minds is an imperfect capturing of reality, and if the purpose of liberal education is to raise up and cultivate the mind to view reality in a much more rational fashion, it serves the liberally educated to study multiple languages so as to gain extra insight into the nature of reality. Newman specifically mentions teaching foreign languages as a necessity. While not bringing up the notion that other languages in general aid in the mission of liberal education, he does discuss the study of literature. He talks about reading classics of literature, works derived from an author’s specific experience, in their original language. Only in reading it in their original language, he claims, can one perceive the specific beauty of their craft, which then serves the mission of liberal education.

Language does the impossible. Normally a combination of form and matter constitutes an object in the natural world, but language provides a different substance, a matter of sound and writing to forms that otherwise already have a natural pairing in matter. Language, an artifact of human experience, marries itself to the abstract forms within our minds and replaces the substance of the world for the mere sake of communication. Our own language, and most certainly language other than our own, deserve to be of incredible import to one’s education.

Why Bother with Learning Languages?

How do you know things? How do you grow from being an incontinent infant to a semi-capable adult? There are two main elements of growth within a person. The first is their physical capability. Infants are useless and weak – adults have to do absolutely everything for them. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be self-sufficient. Growth, then, looks like a casual attainment of physical abilities. The second element of growth in humans is related to intelligence. Infants, beyond not being able to do anything, are also seemingly blank and stupid. They just don’t know anything. An adult, on the other hand, knows quite a lot. So growth also looks like a general attainment of common human knowledge.

That intellectual growth can come from two main places, itself. One of the basic sources of intellectual growth comes from a human’s sensory observations of the world. As children observe visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory patterns, they begin to form from these observations certain abstractions that are what we call information and knowledge. They learn to further gauge their senses towards inter-human interaction and experience emotions. The second source of intellectual growth is language. At first, children get a lot of input from their language-full surroundings. Family and family friends, school, all people around them speak to them and act using language in front of them. By observing and comprehending all this language input, children begin to form connections between words and abstractions. They connect words to abstractions they already understood or use the language to understand new abstractions. They take what they have already learned and combine it with other things they know, or divide it into smaller components. Language helps facilitate the intellectual growth beyond the directly observable.

While composition and division of abstractions is not limited to language itself, it certainly is accelerated by it. Instead of using worldly objects to pull out abstractions, words of language can pull out the abstractions instead, meaning that direct worldly observation is not necessary to gather abstractions.

When children go to school, they are constantly being fed language or worldly observation to compose and divide these abstractions and grow their knowledge. It is a beautiful thing. Classic liberal education, the standard upon which our universities and general schools are built, has a primary goal of giving individuals the ability to compose and divide with ease and to have a wide breadth of knowledge. The more abstract the composition and division goes, the more reliant one is on language to achieve it. This education, though, is not meant just for school aged children. Cicero once said that after a man’s worldly needs are met, the first thing he thirsts for is knowledge. Not knowledge for some worldly purpose, but knowledge for it’s own sake. We want to know simply to know. The more adept we are at language, the more we are able to know and able to come to know.

Great, so I have argued for a general liberal education and for knowing language better, but what about a second language, or even a third or fourth? Why invest in the effort to learn other languages?

Click bait articles and a scientifically minded society wants you to think of a useful reason to learn another language.

You’ll get a higher paying job.

What, by fifty cents?

Your brain functions, like processing and memory, will improve.

More significantly through language learning than through doing other thinking-heavy tasks?

You’ll travel abroad with more ease.

So learning a language belongs only to wealthier people like traveling does? Google translate couldn’t help you get around just as easily?

Anytime someone introduces one of these reasons, a pragmatic reason, a useful reason, they stake the whole process of language learning on a purpose, with a use. When that benefit falls through (as it is most likely to do) what happens then? Likely you give up on learning the language.

Instead, one should learn a language for the sake of learning that language. One language is an individual and specific way of looking at reality. Another language offers a slightly different perspective, and even more languages offer that many more perspectives. It educates the intellect and fosters individual growth in a unique and valuable way, in a way that no other education can do.