Second Languages, Part Deux

Here’s where we left off in ‘le premier part’:

My other studies led me to brief forays in Italian, German, Latin, and soon, Arabic. Throughout it all, I wondered how it was changing me, this constant attention to other languages. Okay, I’ll occasionally throw in a Turkish hedging technique (şey, yani) and I apparently believe that lights and computers are now open or closed rather than on or off, but apart from that, did my relationship to English or thought change?

The languages I’ve studied had strange new rules, fun pronunciation, and interesting idioms…but what did that all get me? What did I gain beyond the practical issues of eating, drinking, or buying souvenirs while on vacation? Did these languages add anything more significant to my life, even if I’m not using them on a regular basis? What can I take away that will increase my understanding not only of myself, but of all of us?

Inconceivable! (Image courtesy of

Thus began my re-education of the issues surrounding language and thought. I started with the big three: Vygotsky, Sapir, and Whorf. These men would have me believe that what I got out of the experience of learning other languages was the opportunity and the ability to understand previously inconceivable concepts. The reason they would be inconceivable was because I grew up speaking English as my native language, and that was the language that shaped – no, dictated my thoughts. If English did not have an expression for a concept, then it might as well not exist as far as the English speaker is concerned. In other words, I could think only what English allowed me to think.

Lev Vygotsky (Image courtesy of Science Photo Library

Lev Vygotsky was a law graduate in Moscow who was influenced by the so-called “structural revolution” in linguistics and literature in the 1910s. He went back to school and in 1925, he published The Psychology of Art. His main interest was the social influence in the development of consciousness. He claimed that intellectual abilities and higher mental functions were specific to a person’s culture. “Socially meaningful activity” is what fed cognitive development and may “serve as a generator of consciousness.” Language – a “socially meaningful activity” – is the medium through which this cultural (and intellectual) information is conveyed to children. In this view, language feeds mental activity, not vice versa.

Edward Sapir (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Vygotsky unfortunately died of tuberculosis in 1934. He was just 37 years old. Enter Edward Sapir, a Yale linguist and anthropologist who worked with Native American languages. His work in the 1920s and 30s led him to theorize that a person’s native language not only influences the way a person perceives the world, but determines and constrains that world view. Based on this, people who speak different languages would therefore have completely different conceptual understandings of the world.

Sapir had an unlikely disciple at Yale. Benjamin Lee Whorf was not a trained academic, but rather a chemical engineer who worked as an inspector for Hartford Fire Insurance Company. His knowledge of linguistics was largely self-taught, but he did take classes with Sapir for some more formal training. He not only agreed with his teacher about the relationship between language and thought, but he developed it further and in 1940, one year after Sapir died and one year before his own death, Whorf published the article that would make him famous and/or infamous.

Benjamin Lee Whorf (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The article “Science and Linguistics” published in M.I.T.’s Technology Review spelled out what would be called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothosis, or eventually, the Theory of Linguistic Relativity. Whorf’s main evidence came from his work with the Hopi language. He found that the Hopi had no word or grammatical construct in their language for time. He believed this linguistic constraint put on the thoughts of a Hopi speaker made that person unable to understand the concept of time the way an English speaker would.

These ideas seemed to capture minds and hearts and for a long time after they were first put forth. Ultimately, the stronger version of Whorf’s theory – that language determines and limits a person’s world view to only that which the language can convey – was discredited, though not before it became the basic framework of George Orwell’s Newsspeak in 1984. Whorf’s methods, actual understanding of the Hopi language, and theoretical conclusions were all called into question or dismissed.  Guy Deutscher wrote a thorough and interesting exploration of this last year in the New York Times.

This linguistic Chicken or Egg game is fairly tricky to keep straight, quite honestly, though sorting through concrete examples can help understand the objections to the Linguistic Relativity Theory. Has anyone else had the sense that you have something that you want to say but just can’t get it right when you try to say it? You try, maybe come out with a few attempts, but you know they’re just not quite right. The thought is there in your head, but you can’t express it. This would suggest that ideas are conceivable even in the absence of the words to express them. Deutscher uses the German word Schadenfreude to illustrate this. We don’t have that word in English, but we seemed to adjust awfully quickly to the concept of feeling pleasure at another person’s misfortune. We had the feeling but needed German to give us the word for it.

Turkish uses a suffix to convey the fact that information is secondhand. Let’s say I ask Roommate A for some wine, but she tells me that there isn’t any left. No worries – I’ll have a beer instead. Later, Roommate B asks me why I’m drinking beer. Isn’t there any more wine? “No,” I’d say, “There’s no more.” In Turkish, I would put a suffix on the word yok (none) that would indicate that I got this information from someone else: yokmuş.

Plenty of other options when the wine runs out-miş.

Does this mean that the concept of secondhand information is something I never would have come up with as an English-speaker? After all, we don’t have a dedicated suffix or tense to convey this, right? No, but we do have other ways to express it: “Apparently, there’s no more wine.” “The wine is gone, so I’m told.” “That lush drank all the wine!” So we can express and understand the same meaning, but we do so differently, if less efficiently.

The weaker version of the Whorf’s theory – that language simply influences thought and understanding of the world – is not as easy to sort out. Languages don’t only enable us to express things, but they also require us to express certain types of information, and these vary amongst languages. In English, we have to convey when an action happened by using a verb tense. Not all languages require this. Romance languages, among others, require speakers to choose a gender even for inanimate objects. They are obliged to categorize objects and ideas along these lines, and this, according to Deutscher, does influence the way they view these objects.

This is easier for me to live with. It’s possible that learning other languages did not give me concepts that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to, but it probably helped me to develop areas of cognition that may have languished otherwise, or given a certain adaptability and flexibility to my thinking process.

The task of sorting out what those areas might be depends on reliably recalling how I thought before I learned the language in order to compare that to my thought patterns after I learned that language. The key word here would be reliably. It’s been at least 25 years since my first language-learning experience, and arguably, my experiences started before that. Being this far removed from my ‘uncorrupted’ brain makes it hard to make clear before-and-after comparisons. The best I can do is conjecture and try to identify possible influences.

We called it Le Petit Prince. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

For instance, I may be more inclined to accept uncertainty because of learning the subjunctive structures in Romance languages that are much more nuanced and detailed than our meager vestigial subjunctive in English. I even remember the Eureka! moment. Our high school French teacher had just asked us how the Little Prince knew that the narrator had fixed his plane. The line was:

“Je suis content que tu aies trouvé ce qui manquiat à ta machine.”  (I am happy that you have found what was wrong with your machine.)

I stared and stared and stared at the line, trying to figure out what was trying to get my attention. Finally I had it. I was so excited that I called out the answer without even raising my hand.

“He didn’t! He didn’t know!” I said. This was the correct answer. The Little Prince didn’t, in fact, know that the plane had been fixed. He had used the subjunctive tense, used to express hypothetical situations.

Being required to encode uncertainty in Romance language verbs may have affected the way I view problems or their possible solutions if I can more easily see the situation from other, more hypothetical angles. Perhaps learning American Sign Language improved my spatial recognition or made me more attuned to what information body language conveys. Manipulating the relatively flexible word order in Turkish might have given me different ways to understand relationships between ideas as I put focus on one aspect or another by altering their expression in a sentence.

Or perhaps I would have developed these skills anyway, regardless of being exposed to other languages. Is language the egg or the chicken? And if we figure that out, we still aren’t sure which comes first. There is ongoing research on this subject, though any discussion of emerging evidence is well beyond the scope of this already-lengthy post. For the moment, I’ll just have to accept the uncertainty, and possibly thank the Little Prince for helping me know how to do that.

Still here? Made it to the bottom? Yay! So, do you agree or disagree with the Big Three?

10 thoughts on “Second Languages, Part Deux

  1. It seems totally obvious! Of course language shapes how we think and behave and what we (can) express. I speak French and Spanish and often wish English had the subtlety and flexibility I find in some of their words. When I lived in France, where personal privacy is paramount, someone told me that had to go into my room and used the verb “penetrer” — which is much stronger and clearer in its tone of transgression than “I went into your room.”

    I also love the French verb “agresser.” Seems it could be extremely useful in New York, where I live.

    • Ah, almost the opposite of my experience in my first year in Turkey. “Privacy” is certainly a culturally-determined concept! People came into my school-owned apartment (which was the top floor of the school) fairly often. They usually gave me warning, but sometimes it was a “Oh, someone was there earlier.”

      And “agresser” would definitely be handy even up here in the suburbs, though I’m curious (because I really don’t know) about what nuances it conveys that the English “assault” or “attack” do no.

  2. I like Whorf. On Star Trek and as a linguist. I have worked with elderly Native people who have a terrible time with the concept of time (as we think about it). Their concept was much farther reaching and less narrow than ours. I saw this same kind of dynamic in New Orleans with people who lived on the Bayou, where time didn’t matter. They simply got up to fish and they knew the best places to go and followed their instincts. There was no official start or stop to their day. They just worked until they got what they set out to get. It was very difficult to get folks from the Bayou to take their medicine regularly. They were among the least compliant patients, and I always figured it had something to do with their the complex and interconnected relationship of their language with their culture and their sense of time. And maybe their distrust of doctors. ;-)

    • Was English their native language or something else? I wonder if their concept of time comes from the way their language is structured, or if their language is structured that way because that’s how they conceive of time because of geography. Either way, it’s a really interesting case (and something new I learned about you today!)

  3. I am fascinated by your posts, L. I find I have to read your writings several times to capture every piece of information you share. I can’t say I understand everything I read, but I am fascinated. (and repetitive)

  4. I find it so interesting that certain languages have no words for certain concepts while others have just the exact word or phrase needed. Ah, Schadenfreude! have I mentioned that I’m 4th generation German on my mother and father’s side? Seriously, leave it to the Germans to have a word for their smugness! I have some very typical German relatives, although I don’t become exuberant with the misfortune of others–I promise! :) (I also have some very sweet realtives, too!)

    • Frau Sprinkles,

      It is certainly interesting that some languages will have these perfect words to express things that we all feel and understand but don’t always know how to express. The Portuguese have a word, saudade which is usually translated as ‘nostalgia’ in English, but encompasses more than that: It’s one of the words that makes me think that, unlike Whorf, the thought or feeling is there but we don’t always have the word for it. I always had the sense that the word ‘nostalgia’ didn’t quite cover things that I felt, but when I heard saudade, I knew it was the word I’d been looking for.

      When I lived in Istanbul, we used to go to the touristy areas and take bets on where the tourists were from. The German tourists were usually much taller than the Turks (which isn’t saying much – the Turks aren’t a tall people!) but their pants were almost always a bit too short and often had crazy patterns. Funny Germans :)

  5. Another highly interesting and informative post, Leo! I was both fascinated and saddened to find that these “big three” linguists (discredited theories or no) all met an untimely demise. Who knew linguistics could be life-threatening? (Ah, the perils of leaping to conclusions about causality…)

    One thing I’ve found fascinating in my recent French studies is the weekly posting of a French phrase, generally idiomatic, here: It is intriguing and sometimes amusing to learn the French idioms, such as avoir du chien, meaning “to be attractive” when it translates literally as “have some dog.” Had I been trying to suss the meaning after hearing the phrase for myself, I may have come to a completely incorrect conclusion about the speaker’s opinion!

    It is clear to me that while language might not actually limit the ability of a native speaker to develop thoughts, it provides a forum for the colorful and accurate expression of those thoughts, to varying degrees of success. It seems the language chosen for the expression of thought could limit the ability to convey the concepts, rather then the ability to create them. Thoughts that cannot be conveyed might not be explored in depth, resulting in little evidence of their passing, no?

    • It also struck me how young they all died, which is why I had to mention it. Sapir lasted the longest but he was still only 55. It makes me nervous that I picked the wrong field ;)

      To have some dog! I love it! It does seem dubious in English, though at the same time, it’s almost like the cool new slang all the kids are saying. Like when ‘bad’ meant ‘good.’ When ‘have some dog’ meant ‘totally hot’ :)

      I think you’re absolutely right – and beautifully succinct! – when you say that the language may limit expression but not creation of ideas. The example of ‘saudade’ in my reply to Sprinkles’ comment, after all, can be explained and understood without knowing the word ‘saudade.’ It just takes us a lot more words in English than in Portuguese! And if we didn’t have the thought to begin with, how would we know which words to steal from other languages who have more efficient ways to express that thought? ;) And it’s true that difficulty in expressing concepts can certainly obscure their existence, making one assume that they didn’t exist at all!

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