What Language Do You Think In?

Since ancient times, people have placed tremendous value on foreign language proficiency, and people who were considered as polyglots have been highly respected. Today’s globalized society calls for a wide range of language knowledge, since it is necessary for jobs, travel, etc. But, have you ever wondered why languages are so important and useful?

Research shows that bilingual or multilingual people may develop “multiple personalities”. That means that such people are able to access different ways of perceiving problems and solving them. Of course, there is more involved than just language and thought; there is also culture – the traditions, lifestyle, habits, and other factors that shape the way we think, and also the way we talk and interact. But the language we normally speak broadly affects and to some extent determines the way we break down reality into categories and label what we observe and experience.

In order to figure out the impact of language on personality, many qualitative methods have been applied by scholars. In 1998, Michele Koven, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, spent a year and a half carrying out ethnographic research with bilingual Parisian adults whose parents were Portugese immigrants. All of her subjects were fluent in both French and Portuguese. Koven focused specifically on how her subjects expressed themselves in both languages and talked about past events. She noticed that her subjects emphasized different traits in their characters, depending on which language they were speaking. According to Koven, one girl sounded like “an angry, hip suburbanite” when she spoke French, and a “frustrated, but patient, well-mannered bank customer who does not want attention drawn to the fact that she is an émigré” when she spoke Portuguese. This may be possible not only because of language structures, but due to the different contexts in which the girl learned both languages. Language is merely how we give voice to what we experience.

Personally, I can tell that speaking in any foreign language is like switching to a new mentality. I remember when I was translating a German article to my mother tongue, Serbian, and I was surprised how German is so rich with words and expressions. I was able to understand the content, but the hardest part was to find the right expressions in my own language. The article was about a woman whose occupation was “Katastrophenhelferin” (a helper in catastrophies), but in Serbian there isn’t a term for a person who helps people in endangered areas and so on. Literal translation sounds a bit weird. Often I find myself thinking in English or in German when I am in complicated situations. It’s like observing a particular event from different angles, which makes the whole process easier. In addition to that, when we speak (and think) in another language, our brain is faced with something new, with a new way of perceiving which it is not used to. In order to adapt to that new experience, our brain creates more neurons. As an online English tutor I have had many students from Japan, China, and South Korea who were over 60 years old (some of them were even as old as 100) who chose to study not only English, but one more or even several other languages in order to prevent brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. 

In the end, speaking at least one foreign language can be fun. Thanks to the Internet we have a lot of options when it comes to courses. Also, there are some free tools like such as DuoLingo or Busuu. These websites are great for mastering the basics of any offered language. You just need to create an account, or maybe connect via Facebook, and your language journey can start.

Let’s just say that whether we want it or not, the languages we speak influence the way we think. There’s a beautiful saying in Czech “Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem.” that translates approximately as: “As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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