Word of the Week: Teacher

Happy National Teachers’ Day! Outside of our families, few people have a greater effect on the courses our lives take than our teachers. How many of us have chosen our paths in life because we were taught, or encouraged, or challenged by a great teacher? I, myself, would probably never have thought to come to a place like GLN without a couple of excellent German teachers. And of course, GLN would be nothing without the dedication and talent of our own language teachers. Great teachers make great communities; so in honor of our teachers, the word of the week is, appropriately, “teacher.”

“Teacher” is an interesting word to see translated, especially by way of contrast with last week’s beer post. “Beer” sounds relatively similar all around the world, but “teacher” diverges pretty widely and, in fact, does not always translate cleanly. We had a brief debate in the office about whether or not “le maître” is quite the right French translation, for example.

Spanish: el maestro / la maestra
French: le maître / la maîtresse
German: der Lehrer / die Lehrerin
Russian: учитель (uchitel’)
Arabic: مدرس (mudaris)
Japanese: 先生 (Sensei)
Chinese: 老师 (Lǎoshī)

This broad spectrum of translations makes sense for a few reasons. First, teaching is a pretty fundamental characteristic of social existence: it is not something that is imported from other cultures and, consequently, does not require an adaptation of a foreign world. Second, different cultures have different ideas of what it means to be a teacher. For example,the translation between “teacher” and 先生 (Sensei), though functional, fails to capture important conceptual differences between these words. It might be possible to create a new word in English or Japanese that makes a closer equivalence. Probably these words would sound a little more similar, but they would not make sense culturally. So conveniently enough, it turns out “teacher” is a great example of how learning a language allows us to understand each other, not merely superficially, but in a deep cultural sense.

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