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