Does language shape the way we think or is it the other way around?

This question goes back centuries. Charlemagne once said, “to have a second language is to have a second soul,” and many people have tried to find proof since.

In the 1930s, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf popularized the idea that each language contains a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Several decades later, influential linguist Noam Chomsky espoused a different theory. Chomsky believed all language is biologically determined and therefore, universal.

Of course, measuring how people think isn’t easy. Over the decades many scientists and psychologists have tried, experimenting with whether concepts such as space and time derive from language. Did they find an answer? Not yet.

Learning another language involves learning a new way of looking at the world

As a language teacher, I believe learning another language involves learning a new way of looking at the world—something rooted, if not in the language itself, then its culture. Different languages contain different distinctions. For starters, there are words that don’t readily translate, such as: gezellig (Dutch) schadenfreude (German) litost (Czech) cafune (Brazilian) or toska (Russian.) See wider list here. These words lend a subtle, nuanced understanding of life.

Languages reflect cultural mentalities. For example, ask a Brit how he feels and he’ll answer “alright,” whereas a Russian would say “normal.” A Dutch person overhearing this conversation might launch into semantics about what “normal” actually means, while answering he “could be better.”

In this sense, I’ve seen how culture influences speaking English as a second language. The straightforward Dutch express what they want directly, and can come across as blunt. In Dutch businesses there is little hierarchy and anyone can openly criticize his manager. But Japanese, in contrast, is a language of subtle precision and diplomacy. Japanese students often seem quiet but they’re seeking the right way to express themselves. In Japanese, you need to read between lines—it’s a form of respect.

What came first, the culture or the language?

And what about English, the current international language of trade? English is less complicated than, say, German, but rich in vocabulary from accommodating new and/or foreign words. Was this due to exploring (and exploiting) other lands when England was the world’s greatest shipping power? Or was it when English landed on American shores, becoming the language millions of immigrants would use in building a new life? As a language, English shows great flexibility.

Compare this to German, a structured, methodical language full of inflections. Germans tend to approach life similarly. They are precise, specific and measured and often speak their mind, especially when the rules are not being followed. Perhaps this is one of the reason’s Germany can boast the world’s top economies. But what came first, the culture or the language?

Perhaps we will never know but observing language learning in action is never dull!

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