Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Lee Whorf’

The other day I was chatting with my three-year-old grandson about language. I can’t remember how we got started, but I found myself talking to him in “Goose Latin,” which was all the rage when I was about 10. He listened with a bemused look on his face and then said politely, “I don’t know that language.”

I may not be able to speak anything but English and a few lines of French poetry, but I do love learning about language. So I appreciated receiving this tidbit from the Economist magazine on how language interacts with personality.

The reporter RLG writes, “Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

“It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

“Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called ‘Whorfianism,’ this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought. …

“Bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. …

“What of ‘crib’ bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

“Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages.”

If you’re interested, there’s a great deal more explanation at the Economist, here.

Photo: Alamy

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