Me, Moi, Yo


The NY Times has a fascinating article this morning on a subject that I have given some thought to in the past, and have discussed with my polyglot friends at length. Namely, does language shape how we think? The author gives many compelling examples (and some counter examples) but the upshot is that yes the structure and vocabulary of our language can indeed influence to a significant degree how we see the world. One of the things I love about language is how lyrical and fluid it can be. Learning other languages, I have noticed how different we can be as people in those languages. It is as if we are playing the role of a Frenchman or Spaniard, and with friends of mine who speak multiple languages, we can confirm that the personalities we have in one language do not always line up so neatly with those in others and our native tongues. This is due to so many things. When we learn a language, we are very much influenced by those around us who are native speakers, and we pick up many of their mannerisms and choice of vocabulary. We also are in a different time and place in our own lives when first mastering communication in another tongue. And then there is the image of how we should speak floating in our heads, as imaginary and subjective as could be, but still an ideal we fix upon. Tie all these elements together and you have the making of a personality. And that personality may not always agree with your other ones. In some ways we are living in another world when we speak another language well, and that is quite a feat of magic, to be able to live several lives. One becomes most aware of these differences when they are pointed out by others, or when we need to translate something that really has no good equivalent in the other language. Sometimes I will be deep in a conversation in another language, and catch a glimpse of my other self. I sense the difference, but not necessarily how it “reads” to other people. For me the greatest value in learning other languages is that it forces us to conceptualize outside of our normal headspace, and expands not only our understanding of what is possible, but our connections to other people. It allows us to erase the hard edges of “other” and break down the fictitious wall between “us” and “them”.