The World Looks Different When You’re Speaking a Second Language

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There are two versions of the writer Lauren Collins. There is the English-speaking Lauren, who, presumably, is the Lauren primarily responsible for writing her (wonderful) new memoir, When in French. And then there is the French-speaking Lauren, the one tasked with navigating a marriage and a life in a second language. In her new book, she tells the story of falling in love with a Frenchman, marrying him, and relocating with him to Switzerland; a passage toward the end depicts one of the sillier but still salient differences between the two Laurens:

Browsing the internet one day, I came across a powerful American executive’s Twitter bio. The third line — “wife of awesome guy” — struck me as too much and too little, overdone and neutered at the same time. My English self sometimes longed for uncomplicated American manhood. When, one afternoon in Geneva, I saw a freshly showered man in khakis and a chamois shirt tossing damp bangs out of his eyes, probably smelling of Old Spice, I almost chased him down the street, just to hear him say, “hi.” My French self thought, Who calls their husband an “awesome guy”?

The dueling selves she speaks of points to a tantalizing question: Is the you that exists in one linguistic context different from the you that exists in another? Speakers of multiple languages often believe so. The memoirist Julian Green, born to American parents living in France, is said to have written the first 20 pages of Memories of Happy Days in French before starting over in English, a change that, he thought, would mostly involve the time-consuming annoyance of translation. Instead, it felt like he was “writing another book”: In English he found himself drawn to different word choices and details as compared to what he’d written in French. “It was as if, writing in English, I had become another person,” he said. Similarly, the parents of the philosopher Montaigne insisted that he speak and be spoken to exclusively in Latin, “so that he could learn to think like the ancients,” Collins writes. Indeed, when the linguists Aneta Pavlenko and Jean-Marc Dewaele asked 1,039 bilinguals and multilinguals exactly this question (“Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you use your different languages?”), 65 percent of their respondents said yes. Judging from anecdotal reports, existing in more than one languages can feel a lot like existing with more than one personality.

And yet the question of how language shapes who you are — or whether it does at all; or if it does, to what extent — is a fiercely contested one in the field of linguistics, and has been for many decades. “Depending on whom you ask,” as Collins phrases it, “languages are either prescription glasses (changing the way you see the world) or vanity contact lenses (basically negligible).”

The debate over linguistic relativism, the term for the notion that the language you speak is at least partially responsible for your perception of the world, can be traced at least as far back as the 18th century, but Collins writes that the figure responsible for influencing our modern way of thinking about this is likely the mid-century linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. In the 1940s, he published his observations on the language spoken by the Hopi, a Native American nation, the most striking of which was this: The Hopi language does not allow the speaker to refer to time in a linear sense. “He based this claim on several peculiarities of Hopi grammar, including the fact that its verbs did not indicate past, present, and future, per se,” Collins explains. “Rather, they marked validity, so that ‘He ran’ would be rendered in Hopi as either Wari (running, a statement of fact) or ‘Era wari’ (running, a statement of fact from memory).” To Whorf, this signaled the role language plays in the way people understand the world and their actions in it.

An intriguing theory, though as so often happens with exciting new ideas in social science, the excitement over it far outpaced the evidence. Over time, Whorf’s theory (and, more specifically, his observation concerning the Hopi language) seemed increasingly suspect, and by the 1960s, the famed linguist Noam Chomsky tore the idea apart by introducing a new one — his theory of universal grammar. To Chomsky, language “is a biological instinct … [and] speech is as independent of culture as breathing or walking,” Collins writes. By the 1990s, Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and linguist, piled on by publishing The Language Instinct, in which he expanded upon Chomsky’s ideas. “The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications,” Pinker wrote.

To his point: You know that fun fact about how Eskimos have dozens of words for snow? It’s a neat and tidy little story, and it would seem to support Whorf’s instincts concerning language and cognition — except that it doesn’t appear to be true. On the contrary, there are, according to research conducted by linguist Anthony C. Woodbury, about 15 different words for snow in one Eskimo language, spoken by the Yupik of Central Alaska; that’s about the same number of words meaning “snow” in English.

And yet recent research is suggesting that language can’t be separated from cognition so definitively, either. Perhaps the best evidence to counter Chomsky’s and Pinker’s respective arguments is the existence of Guugu Yimithirr, a language spoken by a small group of Australian Aboriginals in Far North Queensland. As a whole, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr tend to have extraordinary senses of direction, something that may be explained by the language they speak. To understand why, first consider the different ways words can construct a sense of where something or someone is in space; as Collins explains:

Languages can encode space in three ways: geocentrically, in which the frame of reference is fixed (“I am south of the fire”); intrinsically, in which the frame of the reference depends on an object (“I am behind the fire”); and egocentrically, in which the frame of reference aligns with the viewer (“I am to the left of the fire”). Most languages make use of at least two of them. English avails itself of all three, so that an English speaker can say, “Walk south on Main Street, continue in front of the library, and turn right into the park.”

Guugu Yimithirr is relatively unique, in that it uses the geocentric framing exclusively. Every time a speaker of this language wishes to convey where he is, he speaks of himself as if he is a reference point on a map, giving cardinal directions and never egocentric ones. “If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say ‘move a bit to the east,’” linguistics researcher Guy Deutscher has explained. “To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, ‘I left it on the southern edge of the western table.’” To get an idea of how this might influence a person’s experience of the world, Deutscher suggests imagining two rooms across the hallway from each other in a chain hotel. To an English speaker, the rooms register as replicas; to a Guugu Yimithirr speaker, they appear “reversed northside south,” registering as backward or upside down. “So while you will see and remember the same room twice,” Deutscher writes, whereas “a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.”

The mere existence of such a language gives credence to the notion that language does shape perception. If linguistic relativism and the universal grammar theory are black-and-white ways to consider the question, a new generation of linguistic researchers are shading in the in-between grays, uncovering more details with a host of intriguing new studies. Here are just a few examples:

• In 2003, a pair of MIT cognitive scientists showed German and Spanish speakers pairs of images, one of which was always a person (sometimes male and sometimes female) and the other of which was either an animal or object. The second image, however, was always of something that was a masculine noun in one of the languages, but feminine in the other, or vice versa. For example, whale in Spanish is the feminine ballena; in German, it’s the masculine Wal. The participants’ task was to rate how similar the images were; the researchers’ results show that they tended to rate the pictures as more similar when the genders aligned.

• In 2007, researchers pitted Russian and English speakers against each other in a simple laboratory task: hit a button when one blue square displayed on a computer screen matched another. The Russian speakers, however, had an advantage here, in that their native language divides the color in two: Darker blues are called siniy, while lighter blues are goluboy.* As the researchers expected, the Russian speakers’ reaction time was quicker than the English speakers, therefore providing “the first evidence that language, independent of other aspects of culture, is directly influencing color perception,” as the site Science Blogs noted at the time.

• According to a line of research highlighted recently by Science of Us’s Cari Romm, speaking in a second language may even shift your sense of morality: In your native language, you’re more likely to rely on your gut. In a second language, however, reason takes over, perhaps “because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity,” Scientific American reported. Indeed, the cognitive toll of speaking in your non-native language can’t be discounted here; as Collins notes, even the expert translators at the United Nations work in shifts that are just 20 to 30 minutes long.

The question of whether or how language informs your worldview is far from settled, and yet it’s hard to discount the stories of multilinguals themselves. For Collins, engaging with the strict precision of the French language allows her to more deeply understand Olivier, her native French-speaking husband. “I had once interpreted Olivier’s reticence as pessimism, but I now saw the deep romanticism, the hopefulness, of not wanting to overstate or to overpromise,” she writes. “Vous and tu concentrated intimacy by dividing it into distinct shades — the emotional equivalent of two shades of blue.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the Russian words for blue.