What if the way we thought and spoke affected how we see the world, or even more, how we saw ourselves?
There’s already a lot of research out there that says this is true: bilingual or multilinguals are found to have higher levels of empathy and prioritize communication more than monolinguals, and those who travel have a more global perspective than those who have never travelled. By collecting stories of bilinguals and polyglots, our sense of self is different depending on the language we’re speaking.
I still remember the first time I spoke Spanish without intending to. I was in my angsty teen years, and it just came out: “¡Pero no me escuchas! (You don’t listen to me!)” Both me and my mom stood a little shocked for a few seconds and I turned bright red. Spanish has always been a language of passion, of flourish, of excitement and drama, and that experience clinched it. Since then, I’ve heard other anecdotes of the “Ukrainian brain” or the “Russian brain” or “Spanish brain” just take over in times of high stress. While it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in this, it also solidifies something for me: when we invite another language, culture, and mindset into our lives, we’re also inviting another personality into ourselves.
Now, I don’t mean this from a scientific or mental health perspective; it’s not like multilinguals or bilinguals are walking around with unsuppressed mental illnesses like multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia. No, instead I mean this: our personality changes and shifts a bit when we slip into another language, the same as if our posture changes when we change shoes, or how our neck moves after a dramatic haircut.
The field of linguistic relativity brings this even closer together, arguing that the specific language/s we speak greatly affect how we see the world, from bridges and mountains to colors, sounds, and directions.
This field is as old as Plato and shows how thought and language have been entwined since robed men made blanket statements about the shared human experience. As with most things, the theories of linguistic relativity lie on a spectrum: strong ties mean that your words and thought determine your world view, while weak ties mean that your words and thoughts influence your world view. As with everything, this depends on perception and perspective. If I say “Black Lives Matter”, am I ignoring the needs of the collective? (All human life, in fact, is valuable). Or am I simply acknowledging the historical facts of the social, political, and economic mistreatment and inequality that pervades the American culture, which is the intent of the slogan in the first place?
Linguistic relativity argues that the way we remember events, accidents, and interact with our fellow humans comes down to our word constructs, or how our brains interpret something from happening.
In English, we’re more likely to assign intent or blame to someone: “he” or “she” did something, whereas, in Spanish, it’s perfectly normal to say that an accident occurred: “the lamp fell”.
I’ve found this in my own experience, as improving my Spanish requires a certain level of specificity English has never required. Am I writing right now, with the present participle, or do I write? I could say I tell you something, or I can relay information, captivate you, enchant you, bore you, or give you facts. I could give you a book or a tome of information. How do I see you against me: should I use the informal tú or vos, or the more formal usted?
In certain languages, time as we know it, on a constantly measured horizontal plane, does not exist. However, if there is no word for “three years from now”, does it mean that the next 1,095 days do not exist? If you join a “Right to Life” march or follow a group “Against Illegal Aliens”, how do those words reiterate your world views back to you? In order to not fall into an echo chamber, we need to take a hard look at the words we use to describe our world around us. The current science behind cognitive linguistics adds up thought (cognition), language, and culture, though research has historically focused on nouns, colors, time, and space. As one of the leading researchers of this movement, Lera Boroditsky, says:
If you want to learn another language and become fluent, you may have to change the way you behave in small but sometimes significant ways, specifically how you sort things into categories and what you notice.
Language and thought are all part of a cognitive process, and it comes down to the nature versus nurture debate. Through learning another language, can we learn to be more empathetic? Do our language choices impact or influence how much we focus on the collective, versus the individual: or are we simply creatures meant to pontificate, yet never grow?
If the self-help section of a library is anything to go by, humans are complex creatures, and since the dawn of time, we’ve had problems understanding others and ourselves. Now is as good of a time as any to make your fluency dreams come true, and see for yourself: how will your language shape your world today?