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Linguistic relativity

“It doesn’t simply concern vocabulary or grammar, it’s about reaching such a deep level of immersion into another language and deep-rooted culture that comes with it, that it affects an individual’s attitude and behaviour.”

Among multilinguals, many people feel a change in their attitude when they switch languages.

Besides numerous studies conducted, in which the participants’ interpretation of a situation changed according to the language they were speaking, here are some testimonials of international students who relate to this:

Aine Donnellan: “I almost feel like a different person speaking Swedish.”

Varjavand Contractor: “Speaking Gujarati (one of India’s national languages) with my grandparents…I tend to have a louder tone to match them, and I tend to speak to them in the same manner that my parents speak to me, because that’s where my knowledge of the language comes from.”

Candice Jiale Zhao: “I agree, it also influences the way you think sometimes…and the use of rhetoric, figure of speech and sentence structure is completely different in Chinese.”

Yasmin Ibrahim: “I feel like a different person when I speak my native language (Nigerian)…I definitely notice changes in my expression.”

Paul Icker: “My friend Sofia spent a year in Brazil. When she came back to Germany many people, including her family, felt she had developed a new personality – in a positive way.”

So why do people experience this, and what does it mean?

Firstly, it’s essential to clarify the distinction between multilingualism and multiculturalism: not all bilinguals are bicultural. In other words, this phenomenon affects some people who not only speak multiple languages, but who have also experienced and associated different cultures with these languages.

The cultural influence on languages is universally acknowledged, indicating an obvious yet complex link between languages and their respective cultures.

Credit: Ilaria Olini

It’s also worth noting that fluency matters. This attitudinal change is not due to having a limited vocabulary which restricts one’s expressions. In fact, it doesn’t simply come down to vocabulary or grammar, it’s about reaching such a deep level of immersion into another language and deep-rooted culture that comes with it, that it affects an individual’s way of thinking and expressing him or herself, hence both their attitude and behaviour. 

It’s enough to think about the speed of your speech, use of slang, tone, body language and how these change when you switch language. There are, of course, other factors to consider, like the context in which someone learned a language and their associations with it. A famous example is the notion that the Inuit have dozens of different words for snow, for some time considered a legend and then found out to be true.

But perhaps an expert’s point of view will be more credible: Benjamin Lee Whorf, one of the fathers of linguistic relativity – the notion that the structure of a language influences its speakers’ view of the world, or cognition – held the view that each language encodes a worldview and significantly influences its speakers, seeing language and culture as mutually shaped by each other. 

These are ideas that belong to cognitive linguistics, an interdisciplinary branch that combines work from both psychology and linguistics. 

Although we are not speaking of something along the lines of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it is a phenomenon that an increasing number of people are experiencing, and a fascinating subject indeed.

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