Presumably everyone can agree on the fact that learning new languages can enrich one's intellectual and social horizon. But why is it then, that the path is often so frustrating? Why is it that we often feel powerless and vulnerable when speaking a foreign language, turning red due to a feeling of inferiority or insecurity? And last but not least, how does language influence our behavior?
At only thirty-three, the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote his highly debated and notoriously misunderstood philosophical work “Tractatus logico Philosophicum.” This short treatise contains one of his most famous quotes: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Based on his assumption, the language you are speaking has severe implications for your perception of the world — may it be on a social, a scientific or a philosophical level.
Feelings of inferiority are common when speaking a non-native language. The fact that we suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we cannot express our innermost desires makes us not only feel insecure but also significantly dependent on the opinion and reaction of the person to whom we have entrusted ourselves. Thus, the self-perception of our personality becomes highly dependent on how other people record, interpret and react to our words. We become fearful that the other person will misunderstand or even laugh at us. Thus, we feel compelled to exercise control on ourselves, which makes our behavior look strained and may cause practical aftermaths.
That shift in personality equally applies to how you interpret words yourself.
Foreign languages do not resonate with us emotionally the way our native language does, causing our response to them to be more rational and distant. This phenomenon is also known as the “Foreign Language Effect,” and was on Nelson Mandela’s mind when he proclaimed his well-known words: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
However, is it true that the language we are speaking directly shapes our behavior? The answer to that question is controversial and still offers material for heated debates. For instance, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis claims that to think of something, we need to be able to formulate it. Consequently, words would have to precede thoughts, which eventually shape our behavior and create a link to the language we are thinking in. Language is not only a tool to communicate with other people, but also shapes one’s perception of the world and influences how people “see themselves”. For example, Sami people from northern Sweden have several different expressions to describe snow. This was proven to help them differentiate between different kinds of snow and focus on details that people from another cultural background would not be able to register. As the famous Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini expressed it: “Different language is a different vision of life”.
On the other hand, it seems that most cultures have more or less the same fundamental concepts, regardless of how they choose to express them. While there is no word for “Schadenfreude” in English, all English speakers can relate to the concept. Thus, it is not only the language itself, but also factors such as culture and traditions which can influence our thoughts and behavior.
As with other matters of life, the answer here is not as black and white as we would like it to be, but rather complex and ambiguous. Linguistics is not an exact science, and consequentially theories are usually neither disproved nor fully accepted. Thus, while many theories were presented throughout the past decades, the definitive truth is yet to be discovered.
(Special thanks to Beatrice Zuaro, PhD Student at Stockholm University, Department of English for her very beneficial contribution to this article.)