How Linguistics Can Teach Us About Pluralistic Thinking

Trisha Kietikul
May 21, 2018 · 4 min read

What’s your first language? If you’re reading this, chances are it’s English. Mine was Thai.

Thai is a funny language. In my biased opinion, it is the language most naturally inclined towards puns — most of the vocabulary is monosyllabic and thus, most adjectives and adverbs tend to be onomatopoeias. The fact that there is a separate vocabulary dedicated to politeness means you can be exceptionally sarcastic. People get nicknames, and they stick for life. In fact, I don’t know most of the legal names of my relatives. I only know them as their monikers: Aunt Smiley, Small Aunt, Aunt Fertilizer (nicknames get weird because they’re usually assigned by your siblings in your youth). It is a fun language to speak, and in theory, very simple. There are no tenses, no verbs to conjugate. Most of the words that describe things are literally what the thing does. A lizard that makes the sound “THOK GAH” is called, surprise, a thok gah.

I grew up bilingual, and even though my Thai is stunted and heavily accented now, I notice that some words are never translations in my mind. The thing we use to hold water and drink out of is simultaneously a “cup” and a “T̄ĥwy” (ถ้วย); the best, most excited beings on the planet that love you unconditionally are “dogs” and “H̄mā” (หมา). And interestingly enough, after taking a few Arabic classes, a young female person is a “girl” or a “S̄āw” (สาว) or a “bnt” (بنت). I know the concept before I know the word. All humans do.

Of course, out of the thousands of languages in the world, there are thousands of words for the concept of “girl”. But that’s the thing, we’re naming a concept, an idea that we universally encounter and know as a young, female, person. In English, this implies that she is young, in Thai, it can imply that she is beautiful, in Arabic, that she is my daughter. In the end, our words are just translations of the thoughts in our brains that a lot of people around us know and agree on.

There are hundreds of articles on the “bilingual advantage”, but it isn’t an advantage developed solely in the confines of bilingualism. It’s inherent pluralistic thinking.

Pluralism, according to Wikipedia, denotes a diversity of views or stands rather than a single approach or method.

What’s the advantage of pluralistic thinking?

Pluralism grants you flexibility, accepting that different, opposing views can exist in a single instance, from a single being. It is the knowledge that more than one way exists to solve a problem, why biomimicry works, why diversity trumps monotony every time. It’s non-binary, and frees you up from putting everything into rigid boxes.

If you grow up bilingual, you learn very early on that because the way you say young female person depends on context of who you’re speaking to, that almost everything depends on context. This also happens geographically within English: do you say “driving up 280” or “driving up the 280”? When you make plans do you check your schedule or your diary? What is leaf-peeping? How do you address multiple people in the second person, y’all? When it’s really cold, is it hella cold or very cold? Is lemonade a fruit drink or lemon-lime soda?

Learning about other languages gives you perspective. The most ingrained of society’s systems and traditions from long-storied events of times gone-by. But living in modern society today tends to isolate us from that history. Linguistics opens this up again. Studying a new language means rewiring your brain to understand concepts in a new way. The way you think about conveying the future — how do you say that without changing a verb? Writing without spaces between the words? That’s Thai. What about dropping the “to be” verb in the present tense entirely? Or writing right to left and not writing short vowel sounds? That’s Arabic. How about having an entire past tense dedicated to habits or things you do repeatedly? Spanish has that.

And we haven’t even gone into phonetics yet. Can’t roll your r’s? Can’t hear the difference between ح and ه? Can’t pronounce ง? You can learn to. You are physically capable as long as you’re human.

This is the difference between learning a new language solely for travel and party tricks and studying its systems and cultural influences. You teach yourself a new view on communication — all the nuances of cultural influences, strange phonetics, crazy rules and their exceptions — the very thing that is core to how you perceive the world and express your thoughts changes and expands.

The fun thing about studying a language from a linguistic perspective is that even if you don’t become fluent in a new language, learning all of its fun quirks and rules (and breaking its rules) is a great reminder that context is everything. Even for the most fundamental and inherently learned of our communication tools.

So the next time you encounter a funny word or weird phrase, do a little digging. Find out why, and learn a little more about why your language works the way it does. It’s good for your brain.

Trisha Kietikul

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Thinking a lot, writing a little