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Focus Foreign Language

How Languages Shape Your World View

Wenting Ao November 19, 2019

Illustration credit: Kaitlyn Gross

The language we speak influences our thoughts and our perspectives. As a bilingual person, who speaks English and Chinese, I resonate with the idea a lot through my personal experience.  Maybe you never thought about it and now wonder how language is able to affect the way think.

Time orientation 

Although I have been living in an English-speaking country for more than three years, when it comes to the use of past tense in English, it is still a nightmare for me. Since my native tongue is Chinese, I do not share the same time orientation with native English-speaking people. 

People from the U.S., the UK, Canada or Germany for example have a monochronic view of time, considering it to be divided into small pieces which are scheduled and managed by people. It explains why English has so many different verb formats to indicate it happened in the past. 

However, Chinese people perceive the concept of time differently; they think time is fluid, so they pay less attention to the accuracy of the time.” Consequently, the Chinese language does not have many verb formats to indicate the concept of the past tense. Although the Chinese do have a particle “了” to demonstrate a certain behavior happened in the past, people’s concept of the past may not be as clear as it is for English speaking people.

Hierarchy  

People perceive relationships differently in dissimilar languages. You may notice that people often switch usage of popular online terms to some respectful phrases when talking to older people. Some languages, such as Korean, Japanese, and Russian, have honorific forms of words and sentences embedded in their language for instances when they speak to senior people or people who have higher positions than themselves. They may consider: is the person older than me? Is the person’s role higher than mine? For example, a Korean person needs to use an honorific expression when he or she talks to its supervisor but the supervisor does not need to use the same honorific expressions to speak back. This fact keeps them mindful about the hierarchy in the organization, compared to the British firms for example, where the working relationship is more egalitarian.   

Different perceptions of the objects 

Languages also shape people’s perceptions of objects. For example, Eskimo language has around 50 words for snow because they live surrounded by lots of it. Eskimo name snow by different shapes and sizes. However, other people may have never noticed the fact that snow also has distinct shapes because it is not as important to them. Another good example would be the terms for relatives and siblings. If the cousin is an older female from father’s side, Chinese people call her “堂姐(tang jie).” However, if the cousin is an older female, yet the person comes from mother’s side of the family rather than the father’s side, people call her “表姐(biao jie).” It illustrates that Chinese people would consider different aspects important to define relationships, such as age, gender, and the side of the family, to identify their cousins. However, when it compares to English, people just simply say my cousin, which means that they would less frequently consider the gender, age, and the family side of the cousin. Although English speaking people could add other adjectives to identify their cousins, such as my older female cousin from my mother’s side, it is not common for them to think about these aspects when they refer to cousins.     

Our language potentially builds up our ideologies and deeply affects how we think. Besides the perceptions of time, hierarchy, and objects, there are so many other aspects that I have not even discussed. 

How does your native language define your worldview? Share with us!