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Think in Italian

Language and Thought Intertwined - Do We Differ Because of the Way We Think or the Way We Speak?
Language and Thought Intertwined - Do We Differ Because of the Way We Think or the Way We Speak?

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel

When you start to learn a new language you are often confounded by seemingly trivial details. You would expect languages to be translatable word for word, and while this is often true, in some cases -- usually in the case of the simplest phrases -- it is not. Why is I'm hungry expressed in Italian with the phrase ho fame ("I have hunger")? Why don't they say sono affamato? Well, you could say sono affamato but it carries a different pragmatic meaning; it is much stronger and could be translated into I am starving. Is there any good explanation why different languages and cultures choose to express the same feelings or states of being in different ways?

Think about it. English babies learn that they have fingers and toes, while Italian babies have dita. Italian toddlers sip their juice out of a bicchiere made of vetro, while English speaking two-year-old drink from a glass made While in English there are many shades of blue, just saying "blue" can encompass everything from navy to sky. In Italian though blu and azzurro are very distinct concepts. Another example of the differences in the two languages is that Italian distinguishes between li (there, but still quite close) and (there, far away). There are so many more examples of the way the two languages use different words and phrases to express the same idea and how these can't be literally translated.

The differences do not include only lexical issues -- the meaning of words -- but also syntax: tenses, cases, prepositions, etc. Let me give you one more example: English uses a neutral gender for all objects: it. Italian uses la for feminine and il for masculine gendered objects. Why do Italians bother to distinguish that a knife is masculine, il coltello, and a fork is feminine, la forchetta?  Please do not ask your teacher about it unless you want to hear a brusque answer: because it is so!

The Thinker by Rodin

Still, those of you who are more inquisitive than others will ask yourselves: Do languages differ in their grammatical and conceptual aspects because we as nations have developed different views of reality? Or is it the other way round: Does the language we speak influence the way we think?

For centuries these questions have challenged not only students and teachers of foreign languages, but also scientists and thinkers. In 1820 Wilhelm von Humboldt, a German philosopher and linguist, claimed that "the diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world." Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian logician and professor at the University of Cambridge, went even further and stated that "the limits of my language are the limits of my world." Edward Sapir, an American anthropologist and linguist, drew the conclusion that as language represents reality differently, the speakers of diverse languages would perceive reality differently, and therefore would think and behave differently.

Sounds a bit irrational in today's unified, and yet multicultural world? Think political correctness. After all, the idea behind that concept is that renaming things, situations and persons helps us to change our perception of these things and, following that, our attitude and behavior toward them. If instead of saying chairman we say chairperson, we might actually drop the idea that it should be a man and we might consent to the idea of a woman holding this position. What comes to mind is the classic novel by George Orwell 1984. The society described by Orwell uses a language called Newspeak, which serves as one of the tools of repression. The theory behind Newspeak is based on a belief that if humans cannot form the words to express the ideas underlying a revolution then they cannot revolt. Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words as "freedom" or "revolution," so that "a heretical thought...should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words." Not so far from reality, is it?

So what does all this mean for those of us who set out to learn a second, or third, language? Not only do we have to remember new words and phrases, but we have to realize that as language and thought are intertwined (leaving aside the question of which effects which), the organization of information will be different and each language will have its own framework for schematizing experience. It follows, then, that when you speak in a given language you will take into account its grammatical structure and change your way of thinking accordingly. Many times I have experienced how awkward it is for a bilingual to switch between these ways of "thinking for speaking" when I started to analyze what I intended to say in Polish from the point of view of English grammar. For instance, I wondered whether to use Present Perfect or Past Simple when talking about past events, although in Polish no such distinction exists.

Another example? Italian reflexive verbs: Mi sono lavata. English uses verbs followed by a reflexive pronoun, e.g. I washed myself. At this level it is still quite easy to grasp, however, to be able to freely use all forms of this grammar feature you have to understand the whole idea behind it, even if English does not consider it at all. How otherwise would you understand the logic behind:

August Macke A Portrait with Apples

Mi sono lavata. I washed myself.

Mi sono lavata le mani. I washed my hands.

Mi sono lavata una mela. I washed an apple.

Mi sono mangiata una mela. I ate an apple.


I ate an apple can be rendered in Italian by Ho mangiato una mela or Mi sono mangiata una mela. There definitely is a difference in meaning. Can you tell what it is?

All in all, it is good news for us. Being a speaker of more than one language we become aware of various representations and classifications of reality, all of them equally valid. We get to learn a whole new world of meanings and get a chance to change our way of thinking about things and our way of expressing ourselves. That's what I love about studying foreign languages. You become sensitive to various nuances of things you wouldn't otherwise consider. You get to experience the world with a fresh approach, as if you were offered a new life.


What do you think ?