Have you ever thought about whether your language affects your way of thinking? Or that maybe, your way of thinking affects the way you talk? As we all know, our language is a fundamental part of our culture, but… how does language affect our culture and personality? If you speak two languages, do you think you behave differently when speaking your second language?
Well, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis tells us that the language of a civilization affects the way in which it understands the world. We know that the culture of a region affects language, given the differences between the variants of that language. For example, in Spanish, a man who serves the diners of a restaurant can be called: “camarero”, “mozo”, “mesero”, or “mesonero.” In English, you can either say “apartment” or “flat.” And in French, the number 70 can be said “soixante-dix” or “septante”, although the second form is only used in Belgium and Switzerland.
Language as a way of transmitting culture
We humans recognize linguistic differences from the maternal womb, that is, that we are born pre-programmed to identify the characteristics of the language our parents speak and, as we listen to them before and after our birth, we will probably perceive the world in the same way that they do. Below, you can see some examples of how people from different regions perceive the world:
1. In a study conducted with speakers of Spanish and German, they were asked to describe a bridge. It is important to mention that the noun for bridge is masculine in Spanish and female in German. Spanish speakers described the bridge as “strong”, “big”, and “tough” (male adjectives); while German speakers described it as “beautiful”, “lovely”, and “elegant” (feminine adjectives). Although the study was conducted in English, a language without grammatical gender.
2. People in Finland have about 40 words to call snow or, at least, all types of frozen precipitation. They have names for clean and dirty snow, and for crystalline and irregular ice. While in Spanish, they only have four: “hielo” (ice), “nieve” (snow), “granizo” (hail), and “aguanieve” (sleet). Hawaiians, living in a completely warm area, use the word “hau” to refer to snow and ice.
3. In Japan, respect and hierarchy are very important. Honorifics are Japanese words used to address people. For example: “san”, which would be equivalent to sir or madam; “kun”, to refer to men of minor age or category; “chan”, for women of a minor category or age, children and even animals; “senpai”, for seniors, whether for co-workers or schoolmates who have more time or experience but who are neither bosses nor teachers. Senpai is a word that has no translation.
None of these cases means that we do not receive this information from our environment, however, we include it, analyse it and express it differently.
How can I observe that language modifies my thinking?
One way that bilingual people might notice the differences of thought between one language and another, is the use of expressions, words, and curse words. A person could have a limit to the amount of curse words they can use in their own language. However, in their second or third language, they would not have that problem, because they could not receive the stimulus of that expression in the same way as a native speaker. Perhaps, you are more outgoing in one of your languages than another; more talkative or more authoritarian. A part of our personality changes when talking to friends who are native speakers of our second language, since our personality and ideas are reflected in the culture of others.
This hypothesis is still developing, but culture and language are likely to nurture one another for the development of a person’s thinking. So, if we want to change something about ourselves, maybe we can start changing the language we use and see what happens.