Language Does Not Equal Reality

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.”

He adds:

“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.)

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Language Does Not Equal Reality

  1. Jaya says:

    zhù nǐ hǎo yùn!
    As a person who speaks in one language with my parents, another with my husband, a mixture of both with my daughter and a fourth with students, I can only say I cannot think of going through life speaking only one language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Xiè xiè! Speaking more than one language does seem to broaden our view of the world, though in ways that it’s hard to define. I sometimes encounter Mandarin-language expressions that don’t translate well into English but translate perfectly into German, so that’s what I write into my notebook.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim Grey says:

    What’s even more fascinating to me is research showing that at some point in our lives, late childhood I think, we cease to be able to hear language sounds that aren’t part of our native tongue. This makes it even harder to learn another language, and has the tendency to isolate us even more into the thought patterns of our native language and therefore culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • N.S. Palmer says:

      I wasn’t familiar with that research, but it doesn’t surprise me. On the other hand, such limitations are not necessarily a bad thing. To be a citizen of everywhere is to be a citizen of nowhere. Without our culture and history, we would not be the people we are. And I kind of like us.

      Liked by 2 people

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