Linguistic Influence, Culture, and Self: Finding Joy in Foreign Language

from Tumisu on pixabay, CC0

The other day I got caught up in one of those pointless debates in an expat forum. Pointless only because neither of us planned to budge from our deep-rooted stance, not because the material lacked importance.

My sparring partner was an Englishman planning to move to a village in Bulgaria. From other posts I knew he had a fear of ticks, the Bulgarian sun, and plastic beverage containers. Like many English-speaking expats, he was concerned with how much Bulgarian he would have to learn to get by in the country and wrote an off-hand remark hoping that in a hundred years English would be the primary language throughout Europe.

After eight years of studying and practicing Bulgarian on a daily basis (Okay, some of the ‘studying’ included watching the Bulgarian version of Wife Swap, but I do what I can.) I can empathize with a newcomer’s fear of the language. It’s a difficult language, and the Cyrillic alphabet increases the learning curve, making it especially difficult for older expats. It makes sense for them to wish that everything in the world was available in their native language. But at the same time, that entitlement, the brash confidence that English should be the common language, irks me. I had to step in and say something.

I explained how language shapes the way we think, feel, and express ourselves. It protects culture and develops varied perspectives. Also, the English-preference tends to be a bit imperialistic.

His response? Well, maybe telepathy is best because then he wouldn’t have to use a phrasebook and could understand everyone wherever he traveled.

I left the debate at that point, because when telepathy becomes the solution you know you’re not going to get anywhere. But I want to explore further: Is it really possible to understand someone without the filter of language?

The Beauty of Linguistic Influence

There is an old philosophical concept that language shapes the way we think and interact with the world. Taken to the extreme, the concept that language completely constrains our cognitive processes, it is called linguistic determination. The lighter, more accepted model that states language shapes but does not limit our cognition is called linguistic influence.

The concept, which dates back to ancient Greek philosophy, was modernized and explored by German linguist Edward Sapir and American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. However, the idea was strongly debated until recent anthropological studies have shown rather conclusively that language does indeed shape the way we understand the world. Now it’s a bit of cool pop science that people like myself enjoy throwing out for debate at dinner parties.

But it goes beyond theory. In practice, lingual influence is intricate and, often times, downright beautiful.

Many of my Bulgarian friends speak both English and Bulgarian. However, we tend to interact in only one of the languages, usually the language we used when we first met. But on rare occasions, we will switch languages.

The other day, one of my friends asked if we could speak in English, as she wanted to brush up on her English for work. I was surprised, as I hadn’t realized she knew English. But more surprising was the way her mannerisms changed when she began speaking it. Her voice grew deeper, her expressions more vibrant. Our topics changed as well. We started to talk about more emotional aspects of our interactions, whereas in Buglarian we tended to speak about the superficial, mechanical aspects of our experiences. It was as if I was talking to a completely different person, not the friend I had known for four years. This new person noticed different things, had different interests, and even joked about different topics.

You might be thinking that this dissonance within my friend was caused by her individual experiences with English as opposed to the limitations of the language itself. You would be right. In many ways it was as if I was speaking to her twenty-year-old self, the woman she was when she more regularly used English. When we shifted back into Bulgarian she immediately took on the more mature mannerisms of the sophisticated, responsible “mother-type” that she was in her everyday life.

But that’s the beautiful part of linguistic influence.

Language comes from culture. It is built through the shared experiences of a group of people. That’s why English in the US is vastly different than British English, why small-town English is different than inner-city English. It is built out of necessity, and then it takes its building blocks, the culture it is composed of, and pushes it forward to the next person. When we speak, we are not only sharing our experiences and ideas, but swimming in the culture of those who came before us.

My English is not your English, but an English that holds the experiences of my life. My Bulgarian is not your Bulgarian, but the Bulgarian that captures the pieces of this country I have been exposed to over the past eight years.

Imagining a World Without Language

Let’s go back to this idea of telepathy, of full and immediate understanding without the complicated filter of language. At first it sounds amazing. Let’s get straight to the source of thought and emotion. Let’s truly share our experiences.

But then I start to wonder how much of our self is our lived experiences and how much is our ability to process and filter them? While our initial reactions are important, aren’t our secondary explanations, the way we make sense of our world, just as important to our definition of self?

The closest thing I have to telepathy is my relationship with my husband. No, I can’t read his thoughts or even his emotions. But we do have a physical, unspoken language that is immediate and raw. We can share a look from across the room and have a basic understanding of what the other one wants or needs. It’s far from perfect, but it works for us when we have two yelling kids and have to make a snap decision in a shop or when we’re in bed and exploring the physicality of each other.

However, my favorite time with him, when I feel closest to him, is when we’re driving in the car and talking about our experiences. When we share our histories and the ideas they have built in us. And my favorite of these conversations? When we discuss a new word or phrase and ask what it really means to us.

Maybe the telepathy this person was imagining had a way to filter thoughts through a lens of experience. But honestly, why fix a system that isn’t broken? Language already acts as an amazing cultural and personal filter that, when you take the time to listen and learn, will show you more about a person and yourself than you can imagine.

The next time you wish the world had a common language, stop and think about what you’d be giving up. The ability to learn about yourself through foreign languages. The possibility of seeing your culture reflected back through the twisting of your language by a foreign speaker. The amazing effect of having two friends in one body, learning each of their personalities through their speech and blending them into a more coherent person. You’ll start to see that a little stress and effort to learn a new language is worth it.