How do languages change the way you think?

Speaking different languages affects your personality. You can notice yourself thinking and behaving in a completely different way.

Nearly everyone who is multilingual talks about languages changing the way they think. My great aunt, well into her nineties, speaks five languages completely fluently (although she now tends to speak all of them at the same time), and once said to me with great conviction “Chaque langue est une autre personalité” – each language is another personality. This stuck in my mind, and is something that I couldn’t agree with more. David Mansaray and I talked about it briefly in our interview for his podcast, but the consensus seems to be that while everyone agrees, it’s very difficult to actually put your finger on why this actually happens.

Each language has its own distinctive way of expressing ideas. Varying grammar structures force the speaker to rethink how they emphasise certain ideas, and words can have different etymologies which, even if only on a subconscious level, affects the associations you have with them. As a result, an important part of language learning is embracing these personality changes and being comfortable with them. In my experience people who are ‘fluent’ in a language are generally those that don’t shy away from this. If they adopt the mannerisms and mentality of a speaker of a different language, their delivery improves, along with their grammar, pronounciation, and of course confidence.

Stereotypically, English people are polite, reserved, and extremely eccentric.

Stereotypically, English people are polite, reserved, and extremely eccentric.

In England I think we’re particularly conscious of this. Perhaps one of the reasons why we have such a bad reputation for languages is that people are reluctant to relinquish their Englishness. We see ourselves as polite, humourous, and diplomatic, and we’ve built the whole way that we interact with other people around this. This is partly responsible for our international reputation as the ultimate eccentrics. “The difference between Russians and English people,” as my Russian landlady once said, “is that you can give a Russian some food, and if they hate it they won’t eat it and we throw it away and give them something else. If you do this to an English person, they’ll sit there and suffer the agony of forcing it down their throats and then when it’s finally gone, smile and tell you it was delicious. Why??” She was of course referring to something I had done in the early days of my 8 month stay with her. But by the end of it, I had no qualms about telling her exactly what I didn’t like, and letting her make me an omelette instead. This is something I would never dream of doing at someone’s house in England, but somehow in Russian it was absolutely fine. In fact, the opposite was rude!

Inflected languages are ones where there are no particular rules about what the order of words in a sentence. They allow you to move things around, and emphasise whatever you want. Greek and Russian are both examples of this, and as a result you can express a sentence in as many ways as you like, without the meaning becoming unclear. What tends to happen is people put the most important thing first, and least important last, so often you don’t need to wait to hear the end of what someone’s saying before you can reply. Consider the following six ways of structuring this simple sentence:

The man ate the apple, or the apple ate the man?

The man ate the apple, or the apple ate the man?

The man ate the apple.
The apple the man ate.
Ate the man the apple.
The apple ate the man.
Ate the apple the man.
The man the apple ate.

The example shows that English speakers can only express this idea in one way – ‘the man ate the apple’. English speakers do not have the freedom to express themselves as they might want, and instead have to put aside any strong feelings they have and conform to the structure that the language gives them. Otherwise, they will not be understood. This is what I call ‘channelling your thoughts’, and this can sometimes be quite frustrating.

A more emotionally charged sentence like ‘The murderer shot the man’ shows just how restricting English can be at times. In Greek, for example, you would probably say “Shot the man the murderer!” ‘Murderer’ is the least important word – the fact that he shot someone speaks for itself really, so I’d put ‘shot’ first. Then I’d want to know who’s been shot and who needs medical attention, so ‘the man’ comes second. At this point we’ve already understood that a man has been shot, so ‘the murderer’ can just come last. By the time we’re half way through this sentence in Greek, people are already rushing to the man’s side and calling ambulances, whereas in English we’re still waiting patiently to find out who the victim is.

The etymology of vocabulary, or way that words are constructed, also has a huge impact on a language. Again, one of English’s greatest failings in my view is that it is an extremely exclusive language, in comparison to German or Russian. As English is in many ways a Germanic language colonised by French, we borrow complicated or high-register words from Latin or Greek, which means that those that have not studied Latin have to reach for a dictionary every time they come across words they don’t know. German and Russian instead use compound words, expressing complicated ideas by making use of more common words and putting them together. This means that German and Russian speakers can often guess what these words mean, without having had to study Latin or Greek and without necessarily the use of a dictionary. Here’s an example:

Воспалёние лёгких (Vaspalyónie Lyóhkikh)

An English speaker would have no idea what ‘pneumonia’ is when he/she first comes across it. It bears no resemblence to any other high-frequency English words, and is taken straight from Ancient Greek. The only way to know what it is, is to look it up. But both the German and Russian equivalents literally just mean ‘lung inflamation’, which is all that pneumonia is. In this way, both Russian and German are much more democratic languages, as a lot more technical terms are understandable and familiar, than English.

German words are often made up of lots of smaller words.

German words are often made up of smaller ones.

Whole swathes of writing in the English language are inaccessible to sizable parts of the English-speaking population because of this problem. You hear people saying “Oh he’s very clever, he uses lots of long words”, which just demonstrates how in English it’s even possible to use someone’s native language to alienate them. English speakers are often completely unaware of etymology and how words are made, while over in Germany and Russia people are pretty much able to make them up as they want, and still be understood. This has an enormous effect on the way people think about language, the way language makes them feel, and the way that they then use it.

But in the end, we do come back to the old chicken and egg conundrum. Are cultural practices a product of language, or is language a product of cultural practices? What came first, the stiff upper lip or straightjacket word order? No matter what the case may be, learning another language is the best way to break free from whatever psychological shackles your mother tongue has placed on you.