Does language shape the way we think—or is it the other way around? In my recent blog for Language Partners (see here), I explored this topic. Despite hundreds of linguistic theories, the answer isn’t altogether clear. Is language the chicken or the egg in this situation? We just don’t know.
As I also wrote, I believe learning another language involves learning a new way of looking at the world—something rooted, if not in the language itself, then its culture. Let me expand. As a language teacher I constantly see culture reflected in language and much is lost in translation. Or actually more than that because it just can’t be translated.
Case in point, all week I’ve been working with a Russian businessman, who has proved an unforgiving negotiator when discussing English logic—mostly, because it conflicts with his own. When teaching him diplomatic phrases to soften his approach, his response was to shake his head, laughing. Russians are straightforward, he tells me. They don’t waste time with indirect niceties because they are a blatant, honest folk, which is partially reflected by their harsh climate and equally harsh history. If you ask a Russian a question, you better be prepared to listen to the answer.
In the USA or UK, on the other hand, such small talk helps grease the wheel in doing better business. So while my Russian student speaks English correctly and elegantly—they are an incredibly well-educated nation—in meetings he sounds overly assertive. Try as I might, I have had very little impact on his English. I’ve shown him the language, but his cultural logic has eclipsed my efforts.
So does language shape the way we think? I don’t know, but culture certainly does!