“To have a second language is to have another soul.”
– Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor
I remember exactly how I felt the day I was asked to write a test that would determine the grade level I’d be enrolled in. I walked into an apartment with kids laughing and playing as they awaited their turn for the test—and suddenly, it was my turn.
Feelings of anxiety overtook me as I looked at the paper with letters that formed words I did not understand. I skipped the literacy part and rushed to complete the short mathematical section that I knew would be the easiest part. To my surprise, I received my test back with check marks on every mathematical question—although there was a question mark at the end of every answer indicating that I only received part marks.
In Arabic, numbers are flipped. In English, 25 is spelled out as “twenty-five,” but in Arabic, the number five is read first. So, when I was answering these questions, I flipped the numbers and instead of writing “25,” I wrote “52.” The instructor seemingly understood that due to the implications of vastly different spoken languages, students tend to structure their thoughts and ideas in accordance with their native tongue. Little did I know that this would not only be a mathematical differentiation.
Language is culture, and culture is language. They heavily rely on each other in creating a sense of community that is built upon common values, beliefs, and attitudes. Culture influences us to act in certain ways, and that becomes intrinsic when expressed through language. This creates a sense of solidarity.
Dr. Ilan Danjoux, a language and education professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, spoke with me about the concept of language and culture. He explains that these two elements shape the way we see and express things.
“It’s likely that one’s community might have more descriptive words for a shared practice that might not be found in another environment,” says Dr. Danjoux. “The English language has more words to describe different types of snow in comparison to languages that are located in the tropics region.”
The influence of culture and environment on language tends to formulate words that allow for a better understanding. Dr. Danjoux highlights the benefits of formulating descriptive words. “This allows people to prepare more appropriately and develop a common level of attitudes and behavior to similar conditions,” he explains.
In different cultures, people’s thinking is shaped differently merely because their language is limited to a certain set of words. For example, the Arabic language has 12.3 million words, while the English language has approximately 171,146 words. This makes it difficult for Arabic speakers to convey the original meaning of a single word in the English language. Therefore, it becomes necessary to use multiple words to get the same message across—oftentimes diluting its meaning along the way.
If we are to separate language from culture and environment, we may have a skewed perspective on how language influences the way we think, and why we think the way we do. The structure, form, and functions of a language allow humans to transit ideas and thoughts in a way that may not be very efficient in a different language.
“If I want to translate something from Urdu to English, I find that it’s difficult to convey the original meaning of an idea,” said Fiza Maqsood, a fourth-year Criminology student. “It’s often because that word in its original essence is actually missing in the English language.”
I was so intrigued by this conversion that I asked Dr. Danjoux if people who speak more than one language are more likely to demonstrate better problem-solving skills. “One of the main factors of productive problem solving is empathy, and research shows that bilinguals are more likely to demonstrate empathy,” he explains.
Dr. Danjoux further illustrates that speaking more than one language allows humans to have multiple perspectives on a particular matter, which also fosters better problem-solving skills.
So, if you’ve wondered why you can’t put your thoughts into words in a different language, perhaps it’s because you are limited to a certain set of words. As American linguist Noam Chomsky once said, “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”