The Language Files 5: You are what you speak

Much as I adore the French language, there are some things I just can’t say in French. Not because I don’t know the word, but because the word just doesn’t exist. Take “awkward” for example. Completely overused in everyday English conversation, therefore completely necessary! There is no French equivalent. Bizarre? Gênant? Embarrassant? None are quite the same.

The language we use reflects the person we are; how we see things, how we process our thoughts, how we choose to share them. Yet we are limited to the language(s) that we know, and as illustrated above, even between languages that are relatively close both geographically and lexically, there are concepts which do not translate. A French speaker told me that whilst speaking French, he would simply toss in “awkward” in English. Perhaps feeling “awkward” is something that comes with speaking English?

Your language must have an effect on the way you think. Though there are universal themes that translate in any language – love, sadness, hunger, etc., the more subtle differences surely play a role in your outlook on the world. In fact, what if there was no word for “love” in the language that you spoke – could you technically feel or understand it? Do words validate, or create, concepts?

One thing that both charms me and befuddles me in the French language is the classic question of whether to use tu or vous when addressing someone. French is not the only language to have a more “formal” form of the word “you”, but it doesn’t exist in English. Everyone is equal according to the highly democratic English “you”. In French, there is a distinction, and a vital one at that. Personally it makes me stop and think a little more carefully when I am about to speak to someone. Of course it can be a source of bother and confusion, but there is something appealing about it. Apparently in French schools, teachers switch from addressing their students as tu to vous around the age of 17. So it marks the transition from being a child to an adult, and shows respect to strangers and superiors. Does having this extra layer of etiquette alter the way francophones view others? Does that micro-pause needed to choose between vous and tu render them more cognizant of others’ status in relation to themselves? Japanese has a whole host of suffixes to attach to the end of someone’s name when addressing them, depending on your relationship with them, and that is a society dominated by status.

I’ve talked about idioms before, and they are a perfect demonstration of how a language affects perception. Idioms are unique to a language; that’s the whole point of them. There might be similar phrases in other languages (or even identical ones, as there are between French and English), but some things will never fully translate, and that’s where you have  notions entirely dependent on a given language. Keep a stiff upper lip, old boy! Translatable, probably, but that old English sentiment surely rests within those shores beyond the Channel…

What if you have multiple languages? On the whole it’s fantastic to be multilingual. Practical travel uses aside, it opens up the esprit to more than one way of understanding and conceptualizing the world, as well as other cultures and a wider range of people. But is it possible to know too many languages; do you risk losing yourself in a plethora of tongues? So much of one’s wit and personality relies on the full mastery of a language. It is also practically impossible to maintain multiple languages to the same degree; some are going to slip depending on where you are and what you’re using the most. I have bilingual buddies who could definitely attest to that.

I knew a Malaysian who could speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay, but none of them perfectly. As my French (oh-so-slowly) improves, I find myself on occasion reaching a complete mind-melting mix-up in my head, where I’m caught between two languages; sometimes three, when Mandarin is thrown into the mix. Yet English for me will always, always be the best of the three; I couldn’t imagine being caught equally between four. It’s quite an unpleasant thought, not being able to truly, properly express oneself in any one language.

So, what’s my point? I admit I’ve rather lost myself over the course of this post. I suppose I’m questioning whether one’s language(s) has an impact on one’s actual thought processes, and to what degree. Though at some basic level, all humans are the same and many concepts traverse all languages, I’d be inclined to say yes, the language you speak has a major impact on how you interpret and define the world. From every little nuance (such as not having a word for “awkward”) to the phrases that are indigenous to a language or culture, we think in words, and we can function only within the framework of the words that we know.

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