Duolingo is the most popular way to learn languages in the world. Best of all, it's 100% free!

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

For those who know multiple languages, do you find any changing the way you think?

Having just taking a philosophy of language class, one question that was brought up consistently was whether thinking in a different language makes you break up the world in a different way.

For example, many languages have a gender system, but English does not. Do you find yourself thinking in a more gendered way when thinking in those languages as opposed to English?

The question is much more open than that however. Another example I've heard is that the word for mind and soul is the same in French, "l'esprit", which may have helped in some way to formulate Descartes thoughts in his "Meditations" (Namely, that the mind is separate from the body because the soul in Christian mythology must be).

4 years ago

18 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
  • 20
  • 19
  • 17
  • 14
  • 12
  • 8
  • 3

Well, for a thing, it is difficult to respond to that kind of question, since people who think supposedly in a different way do not know they are different. What is different, anyway?

I can answer to your first question about gender: no, there is absolutely no impact on the way we see the world. A chair is "une chaise", but it is in no way more feminine than "un meuble", a piece of furniture. This is still as much an unanimated object as in English.

For the rest, some studies indeed tend to explore how much a mirror is the language you speak to the way you think. For instance, in Spanish, you often use the passive form: "El vaso se rompió" (the glass broke itself), where in English you would say "Peter broke the glass". Studies have shown not only Spaniards speak at the passive form but also they do not consider Peter responsible, or at least they don't remember Peter being the culprit as something interesting. Well, the study explained it way better than I do, so if I find it, I'll post it here.

Either way, what I can tell you is that not everything can be translated from one language to another, at least in simple words. In Polish -and in Russian as far as I know- verbs use tons of prefixes and suffixes that add subtlety to what you're saying. That cannot be translated literally. Całować, Pocałować, Obcałować, Zacałować... Such subtleties! And these can't be translated. So when I thing in French or English, in my head I will think about the action that could be expressed in Polish, but I'll use a "less sublte" version, and just say "kiss". I have no idea however if the way I think is any different of someone else's because of it.

Last but not least, sometimes you learn/know a word that has a very specific meaning, that -again- you can't really translate with all its subtleties to another language. It happens to me from time to time to think of the perfect word to use but I cannot find an equivalent in the language I'm speaking at the moment. That I believe really comes from the fact that I know a word to express that subtlety, else I wouldn't have though of it. Like -basic example- there is no way to translate Entrepreneur to Polish. Not that I know of at least.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

This is the kind of answer I was looking for, thanks!

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/delapouite
delapouite
  • 22
  • 19
  • 18
  • 15
  • 14
  • 12
  • 10
  • 7

Good points. But I'd rather say that mind and soul are translated differently : mind -> esprit, soul -> âme.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

Ah, is this true? I'm still very new to french, but heard this from a native french speaker (Quebecois).

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
  • 20
  • 19
  • 17
  • 14
  • 12
  • 8
  • 3

In France soul is definitively âme.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

I'll have to get clarification of this from him, as I must have misinterpreted somehow! Sadly, I don't have another example of this phenomenon off the top of my head.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/hdcanis
hdcanis
  • 22
  • 17
  • 3

esprit can also mean spirits and ghosts, and the Holy Ghost is le Saint-Esprit etc, so maybe there was some association there...

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/sakasiru
sakasiru
  • 22
  • 11
  • 9
  • 9

I definitely think that the way you use words has influence on how you think about the things they stand for. But it is a very unconscious progress, so it's hard to name any examples. If asked directly, I would not say that speaking german makes me "genderize" my thoughts. But then I read somewhere that Germans tend to associate more feminine traits with a bridge (die Brücke), like elegance, while the Spanish think of more masculine attributes, like sturdiness, when asked about the nature of a bridge (el puente). It has also been noted that Chinese children find it easier to do math than French children, because their words for the numbers are more consistently structured and easier to work with than the French (really, "quatre-vingt-dix"? Who came up with that?!).

So I can really believe that the way we learn to talk has an influence on how we think. Maybe Germans are so great engineers because we are already used to tacking our words together, who knows? ;)

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/hdcanis
hdcanis
  • 22
  • 17
  • 3

One wonders but things like these have been mentioned and it's sometimes fun to think about these.

About gender system, my native Finnish is even more gender neutral in that there is no separation between "he" and "she", and e.g. one children's author has told that when one of her books was being translated to another language (I can't remember which) she got a question from a translator to specify if a rabbit in the book was male or female. She had no idea, to her it was just a rabbit, and the translator was also surprised that she hadn't thought about such things...

More pronomine fun: I have also heard about a theory which suggested that since Finnish language has no separate words for self as subject and self as object (unlike pairs I-me, je-moi, ich-mich etc) there is also a lessened sense of separation between how one is and how one presents self to others...dunno, I take that with a grain of salt.

I also vaguely recall someone commenting that animal rights have a harder time getting through in Japan because the sign for word "animal" includes the sign for "thing"...(someone who knows Japanese can correct me if I got this wrong).

Also some have suggested that rhyming schemes might affect how people associate things, if English are more ready to associative Moon, spoon and June together than others, I don't know, but again it's something to think about (meanwhile, Moon in Finnish rhymes with tree, bone and mouth). Rhyming does affect common imagery in poetry and songs though, and that can have cultural impact...

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Viaggiatore

The Christian soul is distinct from the body, not separate. Your philosopher of language shouldn't quit his day job. On the other hand, the French have the same word for "mind" and for "wit", which seems significant to me.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

We've both studied Descartes extensively, and it is clear that he believes soul to be seperate from the body in the metaphysical sense. For Descartes it is unextended, meaning it does not fill space in the material world, and therefore does not have a physical location. Since soul and mind are equivalent for Descartes, this meant that the same could be said of the mind.

Of course the point is a bit moot because Descartes also knew latin, so could easily have spoken about mind and soul as different words.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Viaggiatore

The Christian doctrine on the soul doesn't come from Descartes. Presumably the Jesuits at La Flèche taught him the Aristotelian doctrine, in which the soul is the substantial form of the body in its vegetative, sensitive, and intellective functions. What Descartes did with it is on him.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

Of course, there are many different ways to determine the 'canonical' interpretation of the Christian view of the soul. I certainly don't think Descartes must have been using the 'ultimately' correct one.

My concern was whether, with his belief of the soul as unextended, he was forced to believe the mind was unextended too, as in french I thought mind and soul are one and the same word (In which I was incorrect).

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Rodomonte
Rodomonte
  • 25
  • 25
  • 25
  • 14
  • 8
  • 8
  • 4
  • 683

I think Descartes wrote all his major philosophical works in Latin. "Meditationes" was published in Latin in 1641, after French translation - by a French nobleman - was published.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/nateVONgreat
nateVONgreat
  • 23
  • 11
  • 8
  • 4
  • 3
  • 2
  • 2
  • 2

" thinking in a more gendered way" WHat does that mean!? I am bilingual, and I find that i think mostly in English, but more without any language, i mean, not english and not anything, brain language.

a few time i have said something to someone without thinking what language i was talking, and then maybe thinking it was hebrew, but then them not understanding cause it was English or vice-versa,

I also talk to certain people in english and others in hebrew, without thinking, and if i want to switch it on them, i find that i have a really hard time doing so.

i also noticed that English is similar to German in some grammar ways, and so is Hebrew in ways englsih is not, so if i want to understand a lesson, sometimes it is easier to think about it in Hebrew, or in Hebrew terms.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

"Thinking in a gendered way" - I suppose I mean simply that because for example a written 'letter' is feminine in French, and a book is masculine, one may be inclined to think letter reading/writing is a feminine activity, where book reading/writing is a masculine one. This type of thinking could not possibly come up in English because those connotations do not exist.

Is it possible to think without a language? I mean really plan out a day or something precise like that without ever resorting to thinking about it in words. Perhaps one could think it through it in a series of mental pictures, but that certainly does not seem to be the way we naturally think things through.

As for the forgetting what you were speaking in, might the speaking itself be the thought itself? What I mean is, did you really think a sentence through in English (or brain language), in full, and then translate it into spoken Hebrew, and then believe you spoke in English? Or were you simply thinking and speaking in Hebrew without realizing it and simply translating after the fact because you thought you should have spoken in English?

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
  • 20
  • 19
  • 17
  • 14
  • 12
  • 8
  • 3

I kind for some part what nateVONgreat is saying. The way I see things is that for simple stuff, like actions, food, you have a picture of it showing up in your head, feelings associated with it, etc. When I think about a carrot, I see it in my head, eventually I think of the taste, but the name doesn't have to come up. It will come later, sometimes not at all ("J'ai un trou!")

In these cases, you do not think in terms of words, but in terms of feelings, pictures etc. Hence my brain can say the stuff in French or Polish or English, sometime even in Spanish (yey), it absolutely doesn't matter. You can not even realize what language you're speaking, provided it doesn't require an effort to say it. You have to understand we do not translate. We think. These are just words you use to express a feeling, a picture.

For more complicated stuff, like concepts, I would say it's a bit different. Concepts aren't feelings hence are based on words. Then the way you think it will be based on the words you know to express it, hence on one language or another. For me at least, these things will come in the language I'm using lately. Like if I spend a whole week with Poles only, I have no reason to think in French, hence I'll think about everything in Polish. If I'm in France, I think in French, etc. Fun occurs way you keep juggling these languages and your brain becomes a big mess X-D

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JozefLewitzky

This captures mind own limited experience with other languages nicely, I really like your expansion of thinking in the language one has been using lately.

4 years ago