Sunday, 22 March 2015

Understanding language from without

(Feinberg's Wordle, 2015)
I was reading an article online today (Weiler, 2015) about what learning another language does to our brain. Nicholas Weiler explained that people speaking about the same thing in different languages use different constraints and focus on different things because of the structure of the language. The researchers found that when bilingual people viewed the same thing in different languages, their language explaining the same events focused on different things (Athanasopoulos et al, 2015). The  language we are speaking truly changes the way we see the world.

My mother speaks French and German, so at College, I too studied languages.

But I was rubbish at it.

Many people find their learned language skills falling away over time if they are not regularly practiced: I never managed to get it in the first place. My ability to learn the structure of other languages is limited to remembering the unconjugated forms of the verb and some nouns and shot-gunning them out. I can rote learn key phrases but can't do anything else. I started learning French and Japanese at school, as I would have people to practice with (one of my Mother's closest friends was Japanese), but it didn't work, despite three years of regular lessons.

New Zealand is working towards being a bilingual nation. While I know the Māori names for things and recognise phrases, and understand the rhythm and sound of the language, I can't speak it.

Since school I had a great group of Russian friends (so tried to learn Russian), went out with an Argentinian guy (so had a jolly good crack at Spanish), and in passing have tried Portuguese (my great-grandmother was Portuguese). My latest efforts have been driven because my husband is German, so I have been trying to pick up the rudiments of German for well over a decade - have been to classes and all sorts.

Hah! No dice.

While I love learning about other cultures, I appear to have a really, really strong English bias, and other languages don't appear to stick (I so admire my international students who come and study a technical subject in their - at least - third language. Their linguistic skill never fails to amaze me).

I understand that Athanasopoulos et al's research has found that bilinguals may develop a dual perspective, and I think their findings are eminently sensible (2015). However, the point that Nicholas Weiler chose to highlight, that learning another language means we can understand a dual perspective, I am not so sure about.

I don't think you need to learn another language to understand that language shapes our response to stimuli. I feel that learning ABOUT another language and its base culture, and seeing how that language shapes the people and changes their expectations, can enable us to at least partly understand and empathise with that 'other' perspective.


  • Athanasopoulos, P., Bylund, E., Montero-Melis, G., Damjanovic, L., Schartner, A., Kibbe, A., Riches, N., & Thierry, G.(2015). Two Languages, Two Minds: Flexible Cognitive Processing Driven by Language of Operation. Psychological Sciences, March 2015, Online first at doi: 10.1177/0956797614567509.
  • Feinberg, Jonathan (2015). Wordle | Create. Retrieved 23 March 2015 from
  • Weiler, Nicholas (17 March 2015). Speaking a second language may change how you see the world. Retrieved 23 March 2015 from

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