If it is true that we cannot think without thoughts, and that we learn to think through words, then language gives to the whole of knowledge its limits and contours … We think in language … and in ordinary life it is indeed apparent that thinking is almost nothing more than speaking. (Herder, translated in Leavitt, 2011: 78)
by Aleksandra Reczuch
I am not bilingual. My first language is Polish and always will be Polish. All members of my family speak Polish and almost all my education was provided in Polish, but since I remember my parents encouraged me to learn languages. I started to learn English when I was five. Ever since it has been present in my life – as a child I watched Postman Pat and Firefighter Sam, in high school I read American literature and now, during my studies, English became the language of my academic work. I remember it was pretty easy for me to start thinking in English, but as I was surrounded by Polish speakers my whole social imaginary was built with Polish words, expressions and sounds. Before academic year 2015/2016 I used English mainly for reading and writing, but after moving to Ljubljana I was somehow forced to use it more frequently, on everyday basis. I made friends and English became the language of our communication and suddenly, one day, I realized I am as fluent in expressing myself in English as I am in Polish. Well, it should not be a huge surprise for an anthropologist, we all live in a globalized world, where English speaking culture became widely accessible, because of the float of the global capital and the merge of global markets (e.g., Sassen 2007 or Lewellen 2010). So also I, as a part of global English-speaking youth culture, share with my friends same passion for British sitcoms, American stand-up series or Italian post-punk bands who sing in English. And this second language of mine, according to what we have learned from Sapir and Whorf, gives me the access to different social imaginary.
For many scholars, like for example Boas (1965), language became a key to understanding different cultures. With the establishment of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, especially for anthropologists, it became obvious that it is impossible to understand the social world without an access to language spoken by the people they researched. But is it only about the understanding? Language is never only a tool, it is a vivid living thing, part of our lives. Recent linguistic works (e.g., Javier 2007; Pavlenko 2014) deal with the influence of bilingualism and frequent usage of multiple languages on the perception of the world by individuals. The bilingualism is understood really broad (Pavlenko 2014) – the researchers take into account not only cases of people who were brought up in bilingual environment but also whole groups of people who use foreign languages in their everyday work.
Panos Athanasopoulos and co-workers (2014) had examined people who spoke German and English. They were interested in differences regarding describing and covering various events. They were showing a short video clip, where woman walked towards a car or a man was cycling towards a supermarket. The outcomes of that experiment were notable – for German speakers the event was holistic, they paid attention to the details and included into their narrations goals of described action. Descriptions in English were simply covering the action, like: a man is cycling. Athanasopoulos (2014) explains this differences in the grammatical structure of English language, where the -ing ending allows to describe ongoing actions, German doesn’t have such a structure. This various features of languages sometimes are used on purpose – for example when one has trouble to find exact words, s/he mixes vocabulary or when one of the languages has not enough vocabulary to describe complex phenomena (Javier 2007). One of those cases might be the way people talk about emotions:
Bilingual parents may use a specific language to express an emotional concept because they feel that language provides a better cultural context for expressing the emotion. For example, a native Finnish speaker may be more likely to use English to tell her children that she loves them because it is uncommon to explicitly express emotions in Finnish.
My personal experience with using two languages equally made me think that language strongly influence behavior and verbal expression. When I use Polish I am more grumpy, I keep longer distance between me and my interlocutor, I complain more often and I use more complex sentences. Polish is all about thinking and re-thinking, while English is more about doing things. In English I am more open, out-going, I am louder and I feel less pressure. Although, expressing anger in English is still difficult and never will be that relieving as the expression in Polish is. English is simply not enough. And last but not least, the swearing – Polish offers “kurwa”, a swear word that express not only anger, but also excitement, sadness and astonishment. English word “fuck” is less powerful in that sense.
So, can we say that language we speak influences our behavior? I would say yes, but on the other hand it is crucial to point out that our globalized world and the drive to unification of cultures forced people to establish new common language. Based on English, but most probably not that much similar to may not have that much common with Anglo-Saxon culture. British/American influence is huge, but just to keep in mind: they are not the only English-speaking cultures. Most probably not only language influences personality and emotional expression, but people also purposefully use a specific language to suit their needs.
Athanasopolous, P. et al.
2015 Two Languages, Two Minds Flexible Cognitive Processing Driven by Language of Operation [in:] Psychological Science. Journal of the Association for Psychological Science April 2015 vol. 26 no. 4; pp. 518-526.
1965 The Mind of Primitive Man. Revised edition. New York: The Free Press (previously published: [1911, 1938]).
Javier, R. A.
2007 The Bilingual Mind. Thinking, Feeling and Speaking in Two Languages, New York: Springer.
2011 Linguistic Relativities: Language Diversity and Modern Thought, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
2011 Antropologia Polityczna, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagielońskiego.
2014 The Bilingual Mind: and What It Tells Us about Language and Thought, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
2007 Globalizacja. Eseje o nowej mobilności ludzi i pieniędzy, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagielońskiego.