Nearly everyone who is multilingual talks about languages changing the way they think. My great aunt, well into her nineties, speaks five languages completely fluently (although she now tends to speak all of them at the same time), and once said to me with great conviction “Chaque langue est une autre personalité” – each language is another personality. This stuck in my mind, and is something that I couldn’t agree with more. David Mansaray and I talked about it briefly in our interview for his podcast, but the consensus seems to be that while everyone agrees, it’s very difficult to actually put your finger on why this actually happens.
几乎每个会多国语言的人都有此经验：语言切换时也将带来思维的转变。我的叔祖母，年近九十，能流利地说五种语言（虽然她现在倾向于同时用它们表达），叔祖母曾对我说过：“Chaque langue est une autre personalité。”——即每种语言都是一种人格。对此我深以为然。在采访戴维·满萨瑞在时，我们也谈到了这种问题，这种认知似乎是广泛的共识，但却很难解释。
Each language has its own distinctive way of expressing ideas. Varying grammar structures force the speaker to rethink how they emphasise certain ideas, and words can have different etymologies which, even if only on a subconscious level, affects the associations you have with them. As a result, an important part of language learning is embracing these personality changes and being comfortable with them. In my experience people who are ‘fluent’ in a language are generally those that don’t shy away from this. If they adopt the mannerisms and mentality of a speaker of a different language, their delivery improves, along with their grammar, pronounciation, and of course confidence.
STEREOTYPICALLY, ENGLISH PEOPLE ARE POLITE, RESERVED, AND EXTREMELY ECCENTRIC.
In England I think we’re particularly conscious of this. Perhaps one of the reasons why we have such a bad reputation for languages is that people are reluctant to relinquish their Englishness. We see ourselves as polite, humourous, and diplomatic, and we’ve built the whole way that we interact with other people around this. This is partly responsible for our international reputation as the ultimate eccentrics. “The difference between Russians and English people,” as my Russian landlady once said, “is that you can give a Russian some food, and if they hate it they won’t eat it and we throw it away and give them something else. If you do this to an English person, they’ll sit there and suffer the agony of forcing it down their throats and then when it’s finally gone, smile and tell you it was delicious. Why??” She was of course referring to something I had done in the early days of my 8 month stay with her. But by the end of it, I had no qualms about telling her exactly what I didn’t like, and letting her make me an omelette instead. This is something I would never dream of doing at someone’s house in England, but somehow in Russian it was absolutely fine. In fact, the opposite was rude!
Inflected languages are ones where there are no particular rules about what the order of words in a sentence. They allow you to move things around, and emphasise whatever you want. Greek and Russian are both examples of this, and as a result you can express a sentence in as many ways as you like, without the meaning becoming unclear. What tends to happen is people put the most important thing first, and least important last, so often you don’t need to wait to hear the end of what someone’s saying before you can reply. Consider the following six ways of structuring this simple sentence:
The man ate the apple.（这个人吃了苹果）
The apple the man ate.（苹果这个人吃了）
Ate the man the apple.（吃了这个人苹果）
The apple ate the man.（苹果吃了这个人）
Ate the apple the man.（吃了苹果这个人）
The man the apple ate. (这个人苹果吃了)
THE MAN ATE THE APPLE, OR THE APPLE ATE THE MAN?
The example shows that English speakers can only express this idea in one way – ‘the man ate the apple’. English speakers do not have the freedom to express themselves as they might want, and instead have to put aside any strong feelings they have and conform to the structure that the language gives them. Otherwise, they will not be understood. This is what I call ‘channelling your thoughts’, and this can sometimes be quite frustrating.
以上这个例子显示在英语中人们只能通过一种方式来表达意思，那就是“The man ate the apple.”。说英语的人没有任何的表达情绪的自由，只能顺从既定的语言结构和规则，否则意思将不被理解。这就是我所谓的“被引导的思想”，这其实让人沮丧。
A more emotionally charged sentence like ‘The murderer shot the man’ shows just how restricting English can be at times. In Greek, for example, you would probably say “Shot the man the murderer!” ‘Murderer’ is the least important word – the fact that he shot someone speaks for itself really, so I’d put ‘shot’ first. Then I’d want to know who’s been shot and who needs medical attention, so ‘the man’ comes second. At this point we’ve already understood that a man has been shot, so ‘the murderer’ can just come last. By the time we’re half way through this sentence in Greek, people are already rushing to the man’s side and calling ambulances, whereas in English we’re still waiting patiently to find out who the victim is.
像“The murderer shot the man”（这个凶手枪杀了这个人）这样充满了情绪的句子，就可以显示英语的局限性。在希腊语中，这个句子可以表达为”Shot the man the murderer!” （枪杀这个人的凶手），“murderer”一词被放在了不重要的位置，他开枪射杀别人已成事实，因此我把“ shot ”放在第一位。接着我想知道谁被射杀了，谁需要医疗救助，因此“ the man”被置于次要位置，由此我们已然明白一个人被枪击中了，因此”the murderer“可以置于最后。在希腊语的表达中，我们听到一半就可以奔向这位受伤者或及时呼叫救护车，然而在英语表达中我们必须耐心地等到整个句子结束才能知道谁是被害者。
The etymology of vocabulary, or way that words are constructed, also has a huge impact on a language. Again, one of English’s greatest failings in my view is that it is an extremely exclusive language, in comparison to German or Russian. As English is in many ways a Germanic language colonised by French, we borrow complicated or high-register words from Latin or Greek, which means that those that have not studied Latin have to reach for a dictionary every time they come across words they don’t know. German and Russian instead use compound words, expressing complicated ideas by making use of more common words and putting them together. This means that German and Russian speakers can often guess what these words mean, without having had to study Latin or Greek and without necessarily the use of a dictionary. Here’s an example:
Воспалёние лёгких (Vaspalyónie Lyóhkikh)
An English speaker would have no idea what ‘pneumonia’ is when he/she first comes across it. It bears no resemblence to any other high-frequency English words, and is taken straight from Ancient Greek. The only way to know what it is, is to look it up. But both the German and Russian equivalents literally just mean ‘lung inflamation’, which is all that pneumonia is. In this way, both Russian and German are much more democratic languages, as a lot more technical terms are understandable and familiar, than English.
以英语为母语的人第一次看到“Pneumonia” 这个词时并无概念，这个词直源于古希腊语，与其他常出现的高频词几乎没有关联，知晓它的唯一方法就是查字典。而在俄语和德语中肺炎的表达方式近似于“lung inflamation”（即肺+炎症），由此可见，和英语相比俄语和德语才是更亲民的语言，许多技术性的专业词汇更容易让人认知。
GERMAN WORDS ARE OFTEN MADE UP OF SMALLER ONES.
Whole swathes of writing in the English language are inaccessible to sizable parts of the English-speaking population because of this problem. You hear people saying “Oh he’s very clever, he uses lots of long words”, which just demonstrates how in English it’s even possible to use someone’s native language to alienate them. English speakers are often completely unaware of etymology and how words are made, while over in Germany and Russia people are pretty much able to make them up as they want, and still be understood. This has an enormous effect on the way people think about language, the way language makes them feel, and the way that they then use it.
But in the end, we do come back to the old chicken and egg conundrum. Are cultural practices a product of language, or is language a product of cultural practices? What came first, the stiff upper lip or straightjacket word order? No matter what the case may be, learning another language is the best way to break free from whatever psychological shackles your mother tongue has placed on you.