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What Languages Reveal about Other Cultures Posted by on Jun 3, 2015 in Language Learning

“A different language is a different vision of life.” – Federico Fellini

A different language is a different vision of life.”

It sounds like one of those motivational phrases you’d read on a daily quote calendar. You might nod your head in agreement or make a quick internal “aww”, but in reality, you’re not totally buying it. It just sounds… fluffy, right?

But those of us who have learned, or are learning, another language, we know that behind the warm, fuzzy feeling, there’s a real sentiment to that statement. A language can hide bits and pieces of a society’s culture, and learning that language discloses the details.

In Japan, for example, the highly valued qualities of honor and respect are literally built in to the language. The language employs various honorifics to demonstrate polite, respectful, and humble speech. Honorifics are also used to “beautify” words; even daily objects are spoken of with a reverence in Japanese. The prefix “O”, roughly translated to English as “honorable,” precedes nouns like water (O-mizu) or rice crackers (O-senbei). In this way, the Japanese are constantly expressing their respect and gratitude for their belongings.

Languages can influence far more than our thoughts—they can even impact our abilities and actions. Nearly one third of the world’s languages speak of space in terms of absolute directions (think north, south, east and west instead of left and right). Speakers of these languages, like the Pormpuraaw language of Australia, have an uncanny sense of direction and orientation, even in unfamiliar places.

Some researchers believe the connection runs much deeper, researching how the languages we speak subconsciously influence our behaviors. This TED Talk, for example, seeks to answer whether or not your language affects your ability to save money. (Hint: presenter Keith Chen argues it does.) Whether you’re a die hard Whorfian believer or a staunch opponent to any such hypothesis, it’s hard to view language and culture as entirely.

So, what languages are you learning? What have they revealed about other cultures? Let’s expand this list of examples!


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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Marketing Communications Manager at Transparent Language. She speaks enough French and Spanish to survive, and remembers enough Hausa to say "Hello my name is Meaghan, I'm studying Hausa." (But sadly that's it).


  1. Kicior:

    As for addressing people, there’s an interesting phenomenon. Poles address each other politely by using forms ‘pan’, ‘pani’ which till 18th century were in use only for gentry and in feudal relations. The later attempt to introduce forms like ‘wy’ (vy in Russian, vous in French) backfired and whoever used them was seen as bureaucratic representative of the regime. The form recommended by Communist authorities was ‘Obywatel’ (citizen) plus III person sing. This one was even strongly rejected by society and finally were used only by late militia (communist police). And of course cabaret artist had a field day with it.
    The pan/pani form survived thus the exile period and still testifies the love of conservative forms. The latest tendencies to address everybody by ‘ty’ are popular rather amongst youth. It’s strongly discouraged to use them in more formal situations.

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