Swap Language
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Swap Language

How I use foreign languages to think differently

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

There’s been a ongoing interest in how languages shape the brain and the way we think.

I speak English and French, I’ve spoken German to a pretty good level years ago and I recently took a sneak peak into Spanish and Dutch (for reasons as opposed as the location of these countries in Western Europe).

By the way, if you ask me, I find Dutch to be an interesting crossover between German and English, but I’m digressing.

To me those studies are a bit like the ones proving taking a nap is good for your health in general and productivity in particular (not to mention memorization). Or that meditation helps reduce stress. Or that falling from a high ground can be hurtful (there must be some study for that, too, like from how high does it really hurt, but I’m digressing again). It feels a bit like stating the obvious in case someone would try to disagree.

As far as I can tell from my own experience and a few exchanges with friends — granted, that doesn’t qualify for “study”, it’s indeed pretty obvious that the train of thought is not quite the same depending on the language you use. Of course, when you learn a new language, you have to make connections between what you learn and what you know in order to make sense of it and be able to memorize or even understand how it works.

When that happens, you compare your own language to the new one and try to build bridges between the two. I found out that for me at least, it was way more difficut to learn stuff in a language when I had nothing I could relate to in my own mothertongue. Think dative in German, for instance, or the simple fact names have a gender in many languages, that can seem pretty strange in English at first (although if one could explain to me why a sailbot is very often referred to as a “she”, I’d be very grateful). In that phase, you have to literaly translate your thoughts from one vehicule to the other.

After quite some time practicing you begin to use idiomatic expressions in the new language. I think that’s where the new shaping occurs. When you don’t try litteraly translate your original thought into the new language, but you know a “better” way, the way natives would say it. And soon enough (well, provided you’re immersed in the new language), that becomes second nature.

But what is, in my opinion, even more interesting from an entrepreneur or creative perspective is the openess it gives in how we can envision the world. And problems. And innovate and craft solutions.

How does that relate to business or being an entrepreneur? I’ll come to it shortly.

Let’s take an example in three languages, say French, English and German: the word “pedestrian”. That would be “piéton” in French and “Fußgänger” in German.

In French, there’s a sens of stamping in that word, it gives the idea of standing about or trampling if you’re nervous. Now, from a French perspective, in “pedestrian” you get the idea of a lively movement (the word “pédestre” exists in French, mostly used for rambling). And if you take it to German, still from a French perspective, you get the idea of someone who “leaves with one’s own feet”.

So as you can see, if you were French and even if you’d use those aforementionned words in all three languages to describes someone walking from point A to B, you’d get a sense of stillness in French, of liveliness in English and of removal/awayness in German (again, all from a French perspective).

That of course extends exponentially the more you learn and practice and integrate the new language and it’s culture. Culture and language are deeply linked (hopefully there’s another study for that somewhere, in case we’d need it). Idiomatic expressions are a goldmine when it comes to see the world with the eyes of another culture.

More often than not, I use this to kick start my creativity and it’s not rare to see mee trying to phrase a problem I have in different languages. It has proven, to me at least, to force me to envision things a bit differently. To find nuances where all I could see was a big uniform wall. The very simple act of even trying to find how native speakers would present a situation in their own language can help get some insights.

So that’s what I love about languages, and that’s how I try to use them also: not only to communicate, but to shape my own thinking about things. I admit it might be a very personal way, but if you speak different languages you probably can relate.

And if you don’t, you maybe can give it a shot, like translating the keyword of a problem you have in a different language and considering a bit what that instinctively “says” to you.

If you are looking for language partners to improve your foreign language skills you can find it on swaplanguage.com.

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