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TRAN NGUYEN discusses multilingualism and how it influences thought

Bonjour! Hola! Xin Chao! In other words, hello! There are approximately 7000 languages in the world, and I find it fascinating that much of the population are in fact bilingual! Whilst 40% of us only speak one language, 43% are bilingual. But does the ability to speak more than one language affect the way we think compared with those who cannot? Or do we all have roughly the same way of thinking? If you can't tell, I'm a sucker when it comes to languages. Although my native language is Vietnamese, I'm embarrassed to admit that my English fluency has surpassed my Vietnamese with age. This is definitely due to my environment and perhaps it's starting to define me as a person...

Does language influence the way we think?

Language is all around us, whether it’s through our voices, our gestures, music or art. Simply put, language is communication. When we speak, the words we produce express ideas and thoughts. But if we speak more than one language, does this mean we have more than one way of expressing our thoughts?

Being bilingual myself, I agree that there is more than one way of thinking. By speaking two different languages, I feel as if I’m living in two different cultures and traditions. When code switching, this can get quite complicated as for me, these two languages produce different thoughts. For example, the English word “gay”, refers to an individual’s sexuality. However, in Vietnamese, the phonetic pronunciation of gay, pronounced “cay” means spicy/ hot, referring to food. So, when I’m eating out with friends and we say, “this chilli is gay”, we’re actually referring to its spice. It can get a bit confusing as describing something as “gay” has developed negative connotations in everyday English.

Ultimately, language is there for us to communicate, although the similarities and differences between languages can vary; each has different sounds and sentence structures. English and Vietnamese are similar in that they follow the popular subject + verb + object word order. This does not mean the rules in both languages are the same as Vietnamese has certain rules and pronunciations that differ from English, and vice versa. I learnt English surrounded by native speakers in education, which subsequently influenced the way I now speak and think (in English).

Seeing Red in English and Vietnamese

Let’s take the colour red for example. Red in English may have connotations of love and romance, or even anger, blood and danger. Then we have the different shades of red: light red, dark red, burgundy, ruby, scarlet, as well as the connotations to go with these shades. In Vietnam, the colour red is associated with money and luck. The connotations attached to red is shared with other Asian countries, China included. Traditions including the Lunar New Year are often decorated with red themes, symbolising wealth and fortune.

If some languages can associate a colour with a goal of prosperity and others as romance or danger, this would suggest that speakers of different languages depict one thing in various ways and thus, think differently. Ferreira (2019) suggests that how we perceive abstract concepts, for example colours, is related to our own personal beliefs and experiences. Factors including our age, gender, and background influence us and as a result, impacts the language we speak and our personal thoughts.

It’s All Greek to Me! Or Is It?

When we think of languages having similarities, we may automatically assume that countries that are geographically close will speak languages that are similar in terms of rules, sounds and even shared meanings. For instance, most countries in Asia including China, Japan and Vietnam, produce various sounds and tones which do not exist in the English language, but this doesn’t necessarily follow for all continents. Countries in Europe appear to have similar rules, for example, German and Spanish can seem similar, in a rather contrary fashion: their grammatical genders are reversed! German speakers view different elements as masculine or feminine. For example, the sun is considered more feminine for German speakers and Spanish speakers see the sun as more masculine.

A TED talk from Boroditsky (2017) states the word “bridge” is grammatically feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. This means German speakers are likely to describe a bridge as ‘beautiful’ and ’elegant’ which are softer and more feminine; whereas Spanish speakers are likely to describe the same bridge as ‘strong’ and ‘long’ which are considered more masculine terms. If German and Spanish speakers view the sun, moon, or bridge as a certain gender, does this impact the way these speakers think and perceive them? When teaching children that a bridge has a gender, that child then grows up viewing a bridge in a certain way, possibly shifting the way they view objects and influencing their thoughts.

Acquisition of Language: A Moving Target

Knowing how to speak more than one language comes easier to some than others. The younger you learn a language, the easier you pick it up. In Syntactic Structures (1957), linguist Noam Chomsky suggested that all human beings are born with the innate understanding of how language works. It highlights the point that children are wired to acquire language, and if a child is exposed to multiple languages, they are more likely to learn them faster and more fluently than adults. So, if a child is able to quickly pick up a language, then they are also likely to pick up the connotations associated with words and their grammatical structures. Therefore, if children are taught that red is a ‘lucky’ colour or that the sun is either masculine or feminine, they grow up learning these rules and this may begin to define their personalities, influencing how they express their ideas and thoughts.

Let’s take two Vietnamese speakers in conversation: “Shall we go shopping for some red dresses?” They both have the shared understanding that the colour red symbolises luck. Although we don’t realise it, the language we speak makes sense to us but if translated into another language, the ideas are then shifted along with the language. This is because something that makes sense in English, may not entirely translate across in another language as there is no shared alternative association.

Language is ‘Snow’ Joke

A study conducted by Benjamin Whorf examined the vocabulary in what was referred to as “Eskimo” vocabulary, and the famous myth claiming that the Inuit languages have one hundred words for “snow” which traces back to 1911, by a man named Franz Boas. Boas’ research showed to be unreliable as multiple Eskimo-Aleut languages have been around for years and these languages are agglutinative; a synthetic language which can be changed. This suggests that there are not one hundred words for “snow”. Instead, there is more than one variation for terms relating to “snow” which can be constructed in sentences which may not necessarily translate the same in English as we don’t have an equivalent. For example, Eskimo words for snow include “piegnartoq” (snow that is suitable for driving sled), “matsaaruti” (wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners), “pirta” (blizzard), and “qengaruk” (snowbank). It’s crazy how one language can have so many words for snow!

It is also worth noting that the word ‘Eskimo’ itself is a miscommunication on the behalf of early British explorers when dealing with the people – Innuit is the preferred term as ‘Eskimo’ has derogatory connotations.

What Do You Think? (And in What Language?!)

Does the language we speak define us as a person and can it influence the way we think? Whilst there is plenty of research to support both sides, I personally feel that from a bilingual perspective, language does heavily influence the way we think. Even if we do not realise it, there are subtle differences between languages which can shape our thoughts. These are just my musings but let me know what you think in the comments section below! On that note, au revoir! Adios! Tam biet! Good-bye!

Written by Tran Nguyen


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