Language influences thought…?

One-who-speaks-only-one-language-is-one-person-but-one-who-speaks-two-languages-is-two-people.-Turkish-Proverb.png…’when the linguists Aneta Pavlenko and Jean-Marc Dewaele asked 1,039 bilinguals and multilinguals this question: “Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you use your different languages?”, 65 percent of their respondents said ‘yes’. Judging from anecdotal reports, existing in more than one languages can feel a lot like existing with more than one personality.’

I can definitely identify with that feeling;  I have this strong sense that I’m really not the same person when I’m speaking English as opposed to speaking French. I also have a feeling that it’s far more than just a question of language proficiency.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul”. Charlemagne was a European king in the 700s-800’s

Language influencing thought?…or perhaps Thought influencing language?; ‘The question of how language shapes who you are is a fiercely contested one in the field of linguistics, and has been for many decades’. I admit that I haven’t researched this debate in any great depth but it did come up as part of my studies of Speech and Language Pathology and I do remember reading a few articles at the beginning of this century which tended to support more the idea that Thought influenced Language. However, I’ve recently come across more recent information which tends to support the opposite and which is really quite fascinating:

One piece of research, for example, showed that people’s morals change according to whether they are using their native language or a foreign language  ‘……when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue. In your native language, you’re more likely to rely on your gut. In a second language, however, reason takes over.  For example, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which …someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.’

Operating in our second language can have some intriguing psychological effects. We swear more freely and linger longer on embarrassing topics than normal.  According to psychologist Constantinos Hadjichristidis at the University of Trento, a second language discourages us from relying on intuitive thinking.

All of these findings should absolutely be taken into account at international meetings where a lingua franca is being used in order to look for resolutions to problems. Big immoral decisions might be being taken quite unconsciously.

These findings could also go toward explaining my feelings of having a split personality: perhaps my ‘French-self’ is centered in my reasoning head whereas my ‘Anglo-self’ is housed in my sensitive gut (or heart….?) and they could also clarify perhaps why I am more comfortable with my intuitive gut-heart-English-speaking self.

For those of you who are curious, here is a fascinating talk further supporting the idea that language influences thought and behavior (I love Tedtalks!). It looks at how people who use languages that don’t have a specific grammatical form for the future tense – such as Chinese – behave differently (because they  don’t dissociate the present from the future when making decisions).

and this one which explores how the subjunctive mood (which the English language – and the French language use liberally) tend to influence how we experience the world around us. The speaker introduces the idea that the use of the subjunctive (such as ‘should have’, ‘could’…) versus the indicative (or factual – mood) can lead us to live and think in alternative realities rather than in the factual HERE and NOW.




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