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Understanding the language of dreams

Learning a new language - not to do the groceries or get a job, but to understand your wife when she sleep talks. To discover that unique place inside her where she speaks, thinks, and dreams in Korean. This example, from the movie Past Lives (2023), subtly illustrates how language can serve as a medium for emotional and cultural connection.

In a world teeming with diversity and cultural exchanges, the power of language plays a central role in how we shape our identity and connect with others. The film Past Lives offers an enchanting glimpse into the lives of two childhood friends, Na Young and Hae Sung, whose lives have taken different paths. The film as a whole is a magical journey, but it's a specific scene in bed that shows how language can help bridge a divide.


You dream in a language that I can’t understand. It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go. I think that’s why I’ve been trying to learn Korean, even though I know it’s annoying for you.

Dialogue between Nora and Arthur, Past Lives (United States/South Korea 2023, a film by Celine Song)


Nora, formerly known as Na Young in South Korea before moving to the United States, is now married to American Arthur. In an intimate bedroom scene, the viewer witnesses a touching moment. Arthur tells Nora that she speaks Korean in her sleep, and he tells her that's why he's learning Korean: to understand her. While it's fiction, and this might be a cinematic choice to portray his lack of understanding of her, it provides food for thought. How such a touching act of love and dedication sheds light on the complex relationship between language, culture, and emotions.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the principle of linguistic relativity, posits that the language and languages we speak influence our way of thinking and perceiving the world. Through the lens of this hypothesis, we can look at the scene in Past Lives. Arthur is willing to learn a new language, not just to communicate with his wife but also to form a deeper connection with her. It shows that language is not only a means of communication but also a window into one's heart and thoughts. It is a bridge between two worlds, two cultures, and two people.

Second language acquisition, the process of learning a second language alongside one's native tongue, is often seen as an intellectual challenge. However, in this particular case, it becomes an emotional journey. Arthur's desire to comprehend Nora's sleep-talk underscores the idea that language is not just an instrument for functional communication but also a medium to reach a deeper layer of the feelings and thoughts of our loved ones.

The ability to understand and speak another language is a valuable asset in a world increasingly shaped by globalization. It enables us not only to communicate but also to build bridges to the heart of the other. It reminds us that, regardless of our background and native tongue, the language of the heart is universal.


This scene from Past Lives reminds us that sometimes language is more than words. It is an endearing example of how language can be a path to the heart. This brings us back to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language is not only a reflection of our thoughts but can also shape our emotions and feelings. 


Whether Arthur will ever succeed in understanding Nora is another matter.


References:

Sapir, E. (1929). "The Status of Linguistics as a Science." Language, 5(4), 207-214.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). "Language, Thought, and Reality." MIT Press.

Boroditsky, L. (2011). "How Language Shapes Thought: The Languages We Speak Affect Our Perceptions of the World." Scientific American, 304(2), 63-65.

Deutscher, G. (2010). "Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages." Metropolitan Books.


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