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Are We Just a Product of the Languages We Speak?

Each language has a particular grammatical structure and different ways of expressing ideas, which is something that anyone who has studied another language has experienced and which translators are particularly aware of. These unique linguistic nuances often emphasize different parts of speech, which require speakers to consider different causes, possibilities and ideas. But is it possible that these linguistic characteristics found in the language (or languages) we speak can have an impact on the way we think and view the world?

In a globalized world where it is increasingly more common and often necessary to acquire foreign language skills, this is a question that many people, including translators, who must balance two or more languages on a daily basis, have asked themselves. As mentioned in a previous post on our blog, many people who speak more than one language claim to react distinctly to certain situations, depending on the language they are conversing in at the time. Indeed, as a language student myself, I can confirm that I have experienced this as well.  Although, this idea isn’t unique to the modern world, it’s something that has been wondered about for centuries. Take, for example, the famous quote by Charlemagne, which claims that, “to have a second language is to possess a second soul.” Surely, many people who speak more than one language can identify with this statement.

An example of this is the prevalence of gender in languages. In a study, it was shown that children who speak languages thick with gender references, like Hebrew, tend to become aware of gender at least a year earlier than their peers who speak gender-neutral languages, like Finnish. English-speaking children, whose language contains a moderate amount of gender references, were shown to fall somewhere in between.

Even more interesting is how the concept of direction is understood across languages. In the Pormpuraaw language, an Australian aboriginal group, the concept of left and right does not exist. Directions are understood purely as “north, south, east and west.” A speaker of the language might instruct you to take a step to the northwest, rather than taking a step to your left. Moreover, “Hello,” is expressed in this language as “Where are you going?” Fascinatingly, speakers of the language have been proven to possess an extremely acute sense of direction, even within closed spaces containing no directional markers.

So, as we can see, speakers of different languages do demonstrate different ways of thinking or viewing the world, but what still isn’t clear is whether or not this is a direct result of the linguistic structures or if it is in fact the culture of the people that impacts their common language. Most likely, it’s a product of both. So while there is still no scientific consensus on this question, there’s just one way to decide for yourself; learn a new language!