How the Language You Speak Influences Your Mental Frameworks

The brain turns language into an inner voice that drives our thoughts.

The year before my family moved to the United States, my dad was helping me learn basic English. I was 7 years old at the time. We had the following exchange:

Me: “So Americans speak English, but they think in Bulgarian, right?” 
Him: “Uh...what do you mean?”
Me: “Like they think in Bulgarian, but then they translate it to English when they speak?” 
Him: “No...they just think and speak in English.” 

This insight blew my mind. At the time, English was an exotic language that no one I knew spoke. So it was incomprehensible to my 7-year-old brain that other people could think in a language foreign to me. 

In the beginning, I thought in Bulgarian, translated the words in my head, and spoke English out loud. I was eventually fully immersed — I began thinking in English, speaking in English, and dreaming in English.

I grew up toggling back and forth between the two languages. When I think and speak in Bulgarian, I notice that I’m straightforward, logical, and thoughtful when selecting my words. In English, I’m extroverted, friendlier, and more emotional in my decision-making. (It probably has something to do with the fact that Americans often begin sentences with “I feel…” when they really mean to say, “I think...” The language itself emphasizes emotion over reason.)

I wanted to do some real research and answer the question: Can speaking a different language change our thought patterns, and in turn, our perceptions of who we are?

There’s a little bit of nuance, but the short answer is yes. Research shows that the language we speak can influence our thinking, giving us wildly different perspectives of the world. As the Roman Emperor Charlemagne once said: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” 

Research suggests that our perception of the culture associated with a given language can impact our behavior. In a 2006 study, Mexican-Americans were asked to take a personality test in both English and Spanish. The study found that subjects scored higher in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness when they took the English version of the test. The authors speculate that it’s because of the premium individualistic societies, like the U.S, place on assertiveness, achievement, and superficial friendliness.

In an essay, a senior editor at The New Republic explained why he stopped speaking only Hebrew to his three-year-old daughter. “For example, I am funny in English. Or at least I have my moments,” he writes. “Not so in Hebrew. My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate.”

For me, speaking two languages has forced me to spend a lot of time in my head, thinking, translating, re-arranging, and speaking. It’s also helped me as a writer because I’m used to connecting disparate ideas while understanding there’s always more than one way to think.

Sometimes I’ll try an idea, it won’t fit, and I’ll discard it. Other times, I’ll think of a Bulgarian word for a concept I want to convey but can’t exactly find its English equivalent. Sometimes I’ll start writing backwards — from the end to the beginning. I rarely think sequentially. 

I haven’t been able to find the right words to explain this phenomenon until I read Ted Chiang’s sci-fi short story, Story of Your Life, which was adapted for the 2016 film “Arrival.” (Shout out to Eric Eliasson, co-founder of podcast How I Got Here, for sending the story my way.) 

Here’s the basic premise: After a race of aliens, known as heptapods, initiate contact with humanity, the military hires linguist Louise Banks to discover their language and communicate with them. She says:

“More interesting was the fact that [the language] Heptapod B was changing the way I thought. For me, thinking typically meant speaking in an ‘internal voice’ as we say in the trade, my thoughts were phonologically coded. My internal voice normally spoke in English, but that wasn’t a requirement. The summer after my senior year in high school, I attended a total immersion program for learning Russian; by the end of the Summer, I was thinking and even dreaming in Russian. But it was always spoken Russian. Different language, same mode: a voice speaking silently aloud.

“The idea of thinking in a linguistic yet non-phonological mode always intrigued me. I had a friend born of deaf parents; he grew up using American Sign Language, and he told me that he often thought in ASL instead of English. I used to wonder what it was like to have one’s thoughts be manually coded, to reason using an inner pair of hands instead of an inner voice. With Heptapod B, I was experiencing something just as foreign: my thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams (symbols associated with a concept) with my mind’s eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane.

“As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully-formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once … I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no ‘train of thought’ moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence.”

Language shapes your thoughts, your perspective, and your worldview. Since language is the tool we use to mentally categorize emotions and communicate experiences, it’s the primary method through which humans organize and express thought. Being multilingual can open your world to alternative perspectives, allowing you to more easily understand that your own perception of reality isn’t absolute.

The reason my 7-year-old self was so shocked at my dad’s answer is because I realized that not all humans think the same way. It broke me out of my own self-centered view of the world. Now, at 28, I’m equally shocked when I see the toxic divisiveness brewing in our society because people are retreating to their own homogenous thought bubbles. 

As Louise Banks says in Story of Your Life, “The only way to learn an unknown language is to interact with a native speaker, and by that I mean asking questions, holding a conversation, that sort of thing.”

In other words, a curiosity for fellow humans is the antidote for divisiveness and fear. If you communicate often with people who don’t look like you, speak the same language, or believe the same things, you might find yourself breaking out of the egotistical thought patterns so prevalent today. 

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