Text: Afra Porsche, Bachelor student in Social Anthropology
Illustration by Marianne Berg Johansen
Languages are important tools for getting in contact with people. In addition to giving us vocabulary to express ourselves, they give us a framework on how we can see the world, where each language offers its own.
Talking is the most common way people get in contact with each other. A study has shown that we, literally we, as the study only includes students, say approximately 16000 words a day.1 Very few thoughts of those not dealing with languages in their everyday lives are spent on the effects that these words have on us. We talk without thinking. We talk about everything, everywhere, and in many different forms. Every person talks in his or her own way, but the varieties in language increase by distance. People close to you speak like you, a little further away there are regional dialects and in another country, they might communicate in a whole different language. If we want to talk to somebody whose language we don’t speak, we might find ourselves using Google Translate to look up the missing words. But maybe you have noticed that this is not always working very well. Most people, including me, overlook the cultural implications inherent in a language and the differences in how people communicate with each other.
Each language is unique and includes a whole bunch of other things than just other expressions for the same concepts. With a language comes a whole set of implications that contribute to how we think, feel and express ourselves or experience the world around us. Maybe you have experienced this if you have learned another language, which I guess most of you have done. Let me give you an example on how I first experienced that languages work differently and that I would need to combine a lot of them to be able to always communicate precisely what I want. My native language is German. We don’t have a word for “girlfriend”/”boyfriend”. This is a problem because being in a steady relationship without being married is very common. We must use different words to describe what we mean, and nowadays many people even use terms from other languages, like “boyfriend”/”girlfriend”. When I learned Spanish, I got familiar with the word “novia”/”novio” and started to miss it in German. Now that I am here in Norway, even the Spanish words seem useless, or let’s say outdated, to me. With the word “kjæreste”, the same type of relationship can be expressed, but without having to define the person’s gender. Amazing! I would love to have a gender-neutral word in German!
Languages can have other effects on you, than just making you miss some terms in your own native language that are used in different others. It might in some cases even have the ability of shaping the way one thinks and sees the world2. For example, in some cultural areas there are different terms for colors and the people growing up learning that language have other ways of experiencing the colors. While some for example have no division between light blue and dark blue, there exist languages where this is a categorical division. Therefore people might have problems categorizing a form of blue that is neither light nor dark; this may be a cultural implication that is transmitted through language.3
Bilingual speakers very often experience these differences between languages and are familiar with the fact that different languages have different things to offer. If they are in a context where most people can understand both languages, it is possible to choose the language most suitable for the purpose. This can vary across situations, and be accommodated for just by using different, more fitting, words of one language to refer to things while speaking another one. For example, if you want to say something in a very loving, tender way, you might use the words of a language that has softer sounds than the other.
An example of a truly bilingual country is Paraguay. People speak Spanish as well as Guaraní, the local indigenous language. This makes a situationally choice of language possible. People can decide which language they use depending on what they attempt to say and how they want it to be perceived. And they do so!
Guaraní is seen as a more informal, private language. It is therefore used at home with the family, with friends or to tell jokes. Love can’t be expressed as well in Spanish as it can be in Guaraní, according to native speakers. Additionally, when being rude or talking to people that are perceived to be on a lower hierarchical level, Guaraní seems to be the right choice. In official contexts such as at the bank, in the supermarket or in politics, Spanish is the preferred language.4 It offers more career opportunities because of its internationality. People don’t really like using this language as it does not feel good to them. It may be comparable to wearing tight jeans. We wear them, they look good, we can have a good day wearing them, but a lot of people take them off as soon as they get home because they are just not as comfortable as sweatpants.
As we can see, the two languages have completely different areas of application depending on the situation and the information that the speaking person wants to transmit. It is not hard to imagine that the view and perception of the world and the surroundings are limited if there is just one language that can be used. Each language has its own concepts of significance, and they vary a lot. Learning a new language grants us access to these concepts.
If we learn a new language we get in contact with these new concepts, and the newcomer in our language abilities gives us new ways of categorizing the worlds. This opens up our horizon and enables a different world view. Maybe we become aware of expressions that are missing in our own native language.
Of course, it may be difficult to experience all these different structures, categories and forms of thinking without being in contact with native speakers. They are the people that really inherit the values and forms of being of that one language. It would be best if learning a new language was accompanied by contact with native speakers. By talking to persons in their native language, at least in my own experience, one is likely to have much deeper conversations and a better understanding of what is going on. People might be more willing to consider you as a steady person in their life if you communicate in the language that feels the most comfortable for them.
In that sense, I would love if you take this text as an inspiration to think about your own language. It offers you the unique ability of getting in contact with others in absolute comfort. Maybe also have a look at how other languages are constructed and be aware of the wonderful things you can express in your own native language. In order to do that, however, you might want to learn a new language. It is an awesome experience that can make your horizon broader. With a more conscious way of using language, your own or new ones, you can communicate more precisely. Then it might be that those 16000 words per day are well spent.
Huynh, J. (2014). Study Finds No Difference in the Amount Men and Women Talk – ubrp.arizona.edu/
Elbourne, Paul. (2008). ”Meaning and thought” from Meaning. A Slim Guide to Semantics.
Boroditsky, L. (2018). How Language Shapes the way we Think ¬– ted.com
Streber, Guilherme Von. 2018. ”Paraguay y las complejidades de una nación bilingüe: la contradicción del idioma guaraní como símbolo nacional y su condición de diglosia” Encuentros
(Barranquilla, Colombia) 16:119.