Language and culture has always been intertwined and interlinked. In order to understand the heart of a second (third or fourth) language, one must understand the heart of the people who speak it. Many turns of phrase, idioms, and general attitudes about life depend on the environment around them.
I recently finished reading Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language by Deborah Fallows. Ms. Fallows spent several years in China, learning about Mandarin and its intricate structure. The language highlights the way the Chinese see their lives, so different from the Western worldview. Ms. Fallows relates a story about the Chinese vs. Western view of love and romance: A Chinese friend of hers admits that she "loves her husband for now." For now? Was it just a matter of convenience?
The Chinese verb ai (fourth tone) means "to love", but unlike English, Chinese verbs do not change tense (in other words, it remains the same for past, present and future tense). They also do not change for number of people (I love, you love, he/she loves, we love, they love.)
So the expression "Wo ai ni!" can mean "I love you", "I loved you", "I will love you" and so on. It can also mean "I love you now, at this moment." If I wanted to say "I loved you yesterday", the sentence would be, "Zuotian wo ai ni." (Yesterday, I love you.). So when the woman says, "I love my husband for now", she doesn't mean it in a temporal sense. It just translates into English that way.
But a mix-up in translation can definitely make the wrong impression about someone's cultural norm. You can't separate the two, language and culture, and Ms. Fallows sees this time and time again during her travels through China. A different mind set, a different way of life, but utterly fascinating.
All original writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2011