Thinking for speaking

You can probably remember George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The society described by Orwell uses a language called Newspeak, which serves as one of the tools of repression. The theory behind Newspeak is based on a belief that if humans cannot form the words to express the ideas underlying a revolution, then they cannot revolt. Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words like ‘freedom’ or ‘revolution’, so that “a heretical thought … should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

When a baby begins to speak, it learns to identify and classify the objects, people and situations with the help of words and grammatical expressions of time and space of its mother tongue. So does language influence the way we think? The question of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity has challenged philosophers for years. In 1820 Wilhelm von Humboldt proposed that language is the very fabric of thought, which means that thoughts are produced as a kind of inner dialog using the same grammar as the thinker’s native language. Hence: “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world”. Ludwig Wittgenstein stated that the boundaries of one’s language are the boundaries of one’s world. Finally, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis electrified the scientific scene, claiming that linguistic structure influences the cognition of language users. Language classifies the world around us into concepts in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.

Think about it. English babies learn that they have ‘fingers’ and ‘toes’. Polish babies have ‘palce’. Italian toddlers get a ‘bicchiere’ of juice and their parents get a ‘bicchiere’ of wine. Polish two-year-old drinks his juice from a ‘szklanka’, and his parents raise a toast with a ‘kieliszek’ of wine. German concept of ‘blau’ embraces all hues of blue, including dark blue; while Polish ‘niebieski’ and ‘granatowy’ are very distinct concepts. Italian distinguishes between ‘li’ (there, but still quite close), and ‘là’ (there, far away). English has… how many tenses, anyone? Polish makes do with exactly three and no more.

Ok, so there are differences in the way languages describe reality. But does it influence the way we think? If I said “I cut my finger with the blue glass there”, each of you would probably paint a different picture in your mind, depending on your language-specific definitions of the concepts of ‘finger’, ‘blue’, ‘glass’, and ‘there’.

What does it mean for bilinguals? Dan Slobin claims that in the course of acquiring the grammar of a particular language, a person has to adopt a particular framework for schematizing experience (Learning to think for speaking: Native language, cognition, and rhetorical style, 1991), so that when a speaker presents events or experiences in any language, he has to take a grammaticized point of view in order to fit them to the structure of the language. It means that people speaking different languages must consider various online orientation of information flow and will pay attention to particular details stressed by the grammar of a given language. I have experienced how awkward it may be for a bilingual to switch between these ways of ‘thinking for speaking’ when I started to analyze what I intended to say in Polish from the point of view of English grammar. For instance, I wondered whether to use Present Perfect or Past Simple when talking about past events, although in Polish no such distinction exists.

It is hardly right from a bilingual person’s point of view to say that the boundaries of one’s language are the boundaries of one’s world. Being a speaker of more than one language we become aware of various representations and classifications of reality, all of them equally valid. This might be why neither mother tongue nor second language of a bilingual speaker is exactly the same as these languages in monolinguals. But this is a topic for another story…

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