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26 July 2010

Which Came First, the Thinking or the Language?

Most people would read the Title question on this blog post and on a gut level, say that thinking came before language.  There was a very interesting Wall Street Journal Weekend article recently that begins with the questions -- more than one, because we can't seem to stop at one succinct question, but only as a springboard to saying English speakers think differently than Russian speakers or Pormpuraaws, and those differences are influenced by the native languages of the thinkers.  In high school in West Babylon, NY, those of us taking classes in foreign language learned early on that one couldn't simply memorize verbs and nouns to know a second language.  We had to learn another culture including the cuisine and religion, history and literature, geography and folk songs.  If we had time and inclination, we probably would have learned about traffic laws in Mexico, chanted Argentinian futbol cheers, and watched The Brady Bunch and Monty Python as well as the country's Number 1 show on Spanish television (high school students probably do those things and more nowadays).

Surely, a native English speaker who becomes fluent in Pormpuraawan will not lose sight of left and right and begin talking about the pain in his southwest side while at home in the United States and then, that same pain in his due-east side when he sits in the American doctor's office the following day, unless he and his doctor are speaking Pormpuraawan.  However, to have become fluent in that aboriginal Australian language, one probably had to have learned which direction is east, not only to make conversation after saying hello, but to know when facing north, reading progressions would be from right to left.  How do we find east?  We would also need to know that the sun rises in the east and thus to observe the daily phenomenon and mark that cardinal direction as well as the other three (or more, if we're going to be specific about south-southwest).

In other words, to learn another language is to gain.  It means that we become not two souls, but one much richer one.  Yet, we must not believe two people think differently, simply because they are native speakers of different languages.  Language reflects the native upbringing and culture.

The thinker is not influenced by his native tongue.  That would mean he is speaking without thinking.  It is the other way around: foreign languages influence the thinker as well as the language.  Look at all the different influences on American English, proving that English (versus Latin) is a living language, living and growing and changing.  The first step to knowing a person is to learn to speak his language, whether that be English versus Russian, American English versus British English, or ebonics/eubonics versus hip-hop.  Although, often, the converse is not true -- to speak does not guarantee knowing.

There are so many wonderfully written books which highlight the difference in language and culture that I cannot begin to think of any.  But, read the article and I'll get back to you.

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