Linguistic Shades: Why We’re Different People in Different Languages

Essays, Philosophy/Insight, Semantic Drifting

In one furious sweep after the Great Flood, God reduced the Tower of Babel to nothing. In our search for God, we came together to build the tower: one, universal communication system that would unite human kind and diffuse contention. This common link collapses, everyone disperses, and their language diversifies. A contemporary metaphor for multiculturalism, the Tower of Babel is the biblical account of the diversification of human qualities and, most importantly, our infinitely varied set of languages across the globe.

Speaking a certain language may relax us or tighten our lips; electrify us or sadden us. Articulating one consonant may make our mouth snarl. The steady rhythm of one language may subconsciously console use whereas the inconsistency and rapid rhythm of another may create anxiety. How our languages have manifested over time due to the influences of culture, language’s innate qualities, sound systems, and more, yields a kaleidoscopic variety. Linguists have largely debunked the rumors that different languages radically change our perception, yet there could a distinct influence on our behavior. When we learn a new language, we may adopt new behaviors, a new framework for perception… A different mask.

In learning a new language, we might try to connect with a different part of ourselves that’s shattered or repressed due to the cultural constraints. Learning a different language may be the only way we can compartmentalize ourselves in such way. In some cases of people with multiple personality disorder, people have assign different personalities to different languages. A sixteen-year-old boy in Nigeria woke up from a coma speaking fluent Spanish in a different persona after a head trauma injury. “Learn a language, get a new soul,” a Czech proverb declares. Though we may try to distance deviant or “shadow” identities by giving them a linguistic conduit, perhaps, deep in our psyche, the Tower of Babel remains. We may be superficially separate, but we are all one.

As infants, we are whole in ways we never will be as adults. Time narrows us. When we are that young, we have the innate and infinite capacity to learn any human language on the planet. This was never a given fact until Noam Chomsky, one of the founders of modern linguistics, pioneered his theory of an LAD—a “language acquisition device”. This “device” helps us learn our native language, and contains every parameter possible in a human language. As we go through life, we select which parameters our native tongue has: does our language put verbs at the beginning? How do we use the plural case? Do we have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ nouns? Once we know, those parameters are “locked in”—and past age nine, it’s very hard for us to learn languages with drastically different parameters than our own. We may never go back to that place of infinite openness.

When we learn a new language, we become more whole. We gain a different lens with which to view the same thing—much like the blind men and the elephant—which alters our experience of the thing itself. Research shows we are sentimental in our first language and more objective in our second. A native German speaker in a study blushed when she heard “ich liebe dich” (“I love you”) but turned pale when she heard the English translation. Research also shows we may perform at a higher intellectual level in our second language due to this psychological distance from the words we’re speaking.

Maybe we’ll discover who we are in that language. Maybe we’ll become different subjective selves in all of them, and these are the building blocks, different vehicles of the human experience that lead to one allusive point in the sky.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

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