Every Saturday, my friend Jim Grey publishes a “recommended reading” list of interesting blogs from the previous week.
Today’s list linked to an article about the benefits of speaking multiple languages. Jim explained:
“I used to speak German very well. For years there were concepts that I felt I understood more deeply because I could articulate them in German. The language gave me nuance that English lacked for those concepts. My skill in the language has waned from disuse, and with it went those enhanced understandings.”
I think he got it exactly right. Different languages don’t change the facts, but they do change the nuances, such as:
- Focus and viewpoint
- Emotional associations of words and phrases
- Cultural references that native speakers recognize
- Sound, rhythm, and euphony
The nuances can be important. British writer Daniel Hannan, who served in the European Parliament from 1999-2016, observed that:
“Working in that multilingual environment [the European Parliament] has convinced me that there are intrinsic properties in English that favor the expression of empirical, down-to-earth, practical ideas.
I often listen to the interpretation with my headphones covering one ear, so as to improve my language skills. Frequently, a politician or official will say something that seems to make sense enough in his own tongue but that, when rendered into English, turns out to be so abstract as to be almost meaningless.”
“Plenty of academic papers in English are now written in unintelligible [gibberish], the authors evidently confusing opacity of expression with profundity of thought. But such authors generally also look to statist European thinkers when it comes to their view of how to organize society, which rather proves [the] point.”
Nuances change, but the facts stay the same no matter how we talk about them. For example, the Chinese language has some surprises for Western speakers:
- Chinese nouns have no singular or plural forms.
- In spoken Chinese, the same word can mean “he,” “she,” or “it.”
- Chinese verbs have no tenses, such as past, present, or future.
Even so, Chinese people still have to distinguish between singular and plural, male and female, past, present, and future. They just do it in different ways.
The practical reality is the same, but there are inevitably minor differences in how they see it and feel about it. In a few situations, it probably affects how they act.
(P.S. In a couple of months, I’m taking the Chinese language proficiency exam: the Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì. Wish me luck, which in Chinese is zhù nǐ hǎo yùn. I’ll need it.)