A number of readers have asked me, now that I’m learning language number six, whether learning new languages changes how you think. Do you become more passionate while thinking in Spanish? More respectful thinking in Korean? More open to enjoying experiences thinking in French?
The answer is both yes and no.
Does Language Fundamentally Alter Thought?
One extreme view is that language forms the fundamental basis of our thinking and, therefore, certain linguistic systems make particular thoughts unthinkable or completely different. Known popularly as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this idea is also probably false.
Language is a tool that fills the needs of its speakers. When an easy word or expression is lacking, one is invented or imported from other languages. Modern, major world languages which have millions of speakers must cope with the full diversity of human experience and activity. Assuming I was equally fluent, discussing chemistry, philosophy or sitcom television in Mandarin shouldn’t have any real difference from discussing it in Spanish.
This all means that the strong version that people suggest—that learning a new language fundamentally structures different kinds of thoughts one can have, is mostly false. When it is true, it’s usually in fairly uninteresting ways.
Asian languages, for example, have more precise words for relatives than English, so your mother’s older sister’s children have a more precise name than “cousin” in English. But that’s just convenience. The same idea could equally be expressed in English, perhaps just a little more verbose.
Languages also have expressions and words for concepts that don’t match one-to-one. In poetic terms that can be useful, allowing you to carefully select one word that embraces slightly different overlaps of meaning than one which can exist in English. But, again, it’s a nuance in expression, the same fundamental thoughts can be conveyed fairly equally in most languages, plus or minus a bit of brevity.
Culture Does Matter
The big way that learning a new language changes your thinking is that language is a gateway to culture. Cultures do differ dramatically, even if people are fairly similar on a fundamental level, psychologically speaking. Culture offers a different identity and perspective that tends to be more homogenous within a group of people who all speak the same language.
I found that living in France and learning French made me appreciate experiences more, as North America tends to be more ambition-oriented than southern France. But this was almost certainly a cultural trait I absorbed, rather than a linguistic one. Studying French at home in my basement probably wouldn’t have changed my outlook just because of the phonemes and grammar patterns.
Therefore if you learn Spanish and find it makes your thinking somewhat more passionate, then perhaps it’s because passion is a more important cultural value than in English-speaking countries, and the language is giving you an access point to that culture.
But if it’s culture, and not the language itself, which is giving you this new perspective, then if you really want the new perspective, why learn the language?
Here I think is the real thought-changing value of language learning: because without learning the language the culture is always viewed at arms length.
Language is a Gateway to Culture
There are many access points to understanding a culture: cuisine, history, movies, music and friendships. I don’t want to demean any of these other avenues, because I’m sure their advocates would argue equally that you can’t appreciate a country without eating their food or knowing their history.
However I do think language is a preferential route for cultural understanding (albeit a difficult one) for two reasons:
First, most of the world doesn’t speak English, or they don’t speak it well. There are some countries which are exceptions, such as Sweden or Singapore, but not many. While it’s certainly possible to travel to places and only interact with the English-speaking minority, you end up leaving out most other people.
The people who speak English well in most countries also tend to be the better educated, cosmopolitan elite. They’re not a representative sampling from the underlying population, so you often completely miss aspects of the cultural perspective you wanted to gain.
Second, understanding via a translation is the difference between seeing a postcard and being there in person. Most translations are shabby, and even the high quality ones you get for movies and books are, by definition, a paraphrase of what was actually said.
The person who says that there is zero merit in learning a foreign language because they can just get things translated, is a bit like a person who says there’s no reason to visit a place because the pictures are detailed enough. From an information perspective, it’s not entirely wrong, but it does somewhat miss the point.
The Language Learning Experience Changes How You Think
Finally beyond the changes in thinking that come from new linguistic categories or exposure to new cultures, the process of learning the language itself changes how you think.
The process of going from bewilderment, to struggled communication, to communication that flows but with a particular stiltedness that natives speakers lack (and potentially to complete indistinguishable fluency) changes how you view communication, how you view other people learning English and yourself.
I think this is the most valuable part of language learning as a way of changing perspective. Not because a new language will allow you to think different thoughts, nor even because it will give you access to people whose thoughts differ from your own, but because it will help you understand yourself in a way that wasn’t possible before.