Languages affect how we think

I open my mouth and nothing comes out.  While trying to say something in Portuguese, the thoughts come up in Chinese.  I don’t want to look stupid, so I stop myself in my tracks. Looking stupid is unavoidable and the result is me, speechless, until Portuguese decides to kick back in again.

Sheez, thanks again, brain.  You suck.

I’m frustrated with my brain.  If my mother tongue is Spanish, which is hella lot similar to Portuguese, why doesn’t Spanish come through and say “HOLA!”

Is it that because of how languages are stored, Portuguese and Chinese are processed by a different part of the brain?  As secondary languages?  as languages still being learned?

Until I master both, my brain will want to speak Portuguese like this:  Oi, é muito engraçado que o Chinês  o que eu quiser dizer”

Which translated to English goes something like this, “Hey, it’s really funny that Chinese what I want to say.”

(掉 = will mess up)

But more than funny, I think it says a lot about whether language is just a utensil or a tool, or whether it’s something that becomes a part of us in a very ingrained way.

There’s an explanation called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  According to it, language affects how we think. But some might say how we think affects language.

How can the way we think affect our language?

First, a real cool fact.

“Linguists have discovered more than 50 distinct words for snow in the vocabulary of the Eskimo people.” Isac Florin, Professor of Marketing at Universitatea Aurel Vlaicu Ara, Romania. 

Here are some examples of how languages influence us:

  • By making bicultural people talk in Spanglish.
  • By making the Japanese adopt words they didn’t have a word for before, like stalker is ストーカー  (Sutōkā). 
  • By making Spanish have three ways of saying you in a singular form.  Tú (informal), vos, and usted (formal).  Each one indicates different levels of respect and dignity, ‘usted’ being the most formal, followed by ‘vos’, and ‘tú’ being the least.
    The way you conjugate verbs in Spanish then, depends not only on time tense and singular/plural form, but also on formality.

Let’s examine the last point:  I use “Tú” (you, informal) when I’m talking to my friends or immediate family members.  But I address uncles and aunts, people in positions of authority or higher up the food chain, or in general, people older than me as “usted.”

I feel that whenever I say “usted,” I’m publicly and personally recognizing the position of authority of the other person because using an informal tú would be disrespectful.

It took me forever to talk to superiors and department directors of advertising agencies with a tú, since in advertising, everybody is addressed by their first name.  No formalities.

In this sense, the way I use language affects my perceptions of others.  In my transition of going from calling supervisors usted–> tú, I felt somehow that these people were more approachable and that they welcomed freedom of dialogue.

Thus, I think the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has some merit.  (It was controversial during the 1970s since it failed to prove its assumption that the terms for color in one’s language affected a person’s ability to process different color hues (Sera, Bales, and Del Castillo 821 [they also did a study that suggests language affects child schemas]).

By saying that language has the power to change how people think, we mean language also has the power to influence culture. I think Language influences our views on the world, but only because our views on the world influenced language first.

For example, like Spanish but at a much more complex level,  Japanese grammatical structures serve no purpose other than demonstrating respect towards superiors.

Many Asian cultures categorize people according to the level of respect they deserve according to social dynamics: parent over child, older over younger, professor over student, etc.  which could come from Buddhist influence or (maybe, if any) Confucian influence.

Therefore, when children are learning their Japanese as their native language, the grammatical politeness in their speech may lead them to reinforce these differences in authority.

So when Japanese children learn to speak with formality, they are trained in addressing others with more respect. By doing so, they reinforce their place within society.

Another example is Mandarin Chinese.

In Mandarin Chinese, the term for “everyone” is dajia (). Da () means big and jia (家) means house or sometimes family. By implying “everyone”  can be part of your inside circle (house), collectivism is reiterated.

Finally, returning to another example in Spanish, emotions are more emphasized than in English. For example, there are three different ways of saying “I love you” in Spanish. Each one uses a different verb: ‘querer’, ‘amar’, and ‘adorar’. When used under different circumstances and brings different emotions upfront.

This concurs with Dr. Felipe Korzenny’s statement, who used to be one of my professors, that Spanish is a language of love, while English is a language of work and efficiency (Korzenny 126).

Although easily overlooked, it is the hard-to-spot cultural nuances that help a communicator (whether marketer, salesperson, etc) tailor his/her message.

Klingon can’t exist without Startrek, and Startrek can’t exist without Klingon.

Language cannot be without culture, and culture cannot exist without language.

Works Cited.

Korzenny, Felipe and Betty Ann Korzenny. Hispanic Marketing : Connecting with the New Latino Consummer.  New York.  Routledge, 2012.

Sera, Maria D. et al. “”Ser” Helps Spanish Speakers Identify “Real” Properties.” Child Development Vol. 68, No. 5 (Oct., 1997), pp. 820-831. Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development.<

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