As a native English speaker, there are a lot of things in the world that come easy to people like us. We’re usually able to communicate in foreign places because our language is so widely accepted, everyone wants to learn English, so those who are native have a leg up usually, and It’s so widely accepted because of how successful English speaking nations and English speaking companies are. So what would your life be like if you learned French as your native language? Or even Japanese? Apparently your life could have been very different.
Personally, I am a native English speaker, but I’m quite fluent in Japanese; enough so to hold a conversation in most topics with a native Japanese speaker and not look totally lost the entire time. I even spent over 4 months living abroad as an international student in Tokyo, so I believe I understand more much more about Japanese than if I were to have stayed in the United States. What I noticed about myself while I was learning Japanese was the more and more I learned Japanese, the more my thought process changed. I no longer think in just one language, now I have two at my disposal. What’s great about the combination of these two languages in particular is that they’re very different from each other. Yes, that’s my actual reasoning. English comes from what we call a Latin-based, low-context culture. Latin based is easily explained; the roots of the language trace back to Latin, just like many European languages and Latin American ones (aptly named), and low-context means that in any given situation, the underlying emotion behind the situation (what’s really going on behind the scenes and what people expect from you) isn’t very out-in-the-open. Often times people ask for clarity in these given situations, like being read-in to a situation, which is perfectly acceptable in a culture such as our own. Japanese so happens to be a non-Latin based, high context culture; the very opposite of what the core of the English language is. Non-Latin based because Japanese traces Its origins back to China and Kūkai空海, one of the founders of modern Japanese language (who also accomplished much more in his life), and it’s a high-context culture because you are expected as a person to understand the underlying emotion in any given situation/you’re expected to already know how to respond and react in certain situations, usually in a cultural or business context. So how do these two different languages make you think differently?
According to Antonio Benítez-Burraco Ph.D., Thought, Language, and Culture are all interchangeable. They feed off of each other, so that the culture and thought process of the Japanese is apparent in their language. There’s actually a term for this, called linguistic determinism, and it’s literally “the idea that language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorization, memory, and perception. The term implies that people who speak different languages as their mother tongues have different thought processes.” (sourced from Maya Hickmann’s Linguistics).
Interesting isn’t it? The language you speak is literally defining your thought process without you knowing it. Let me give you an example of this between English and Japanese; “I want that watch.” In Japanese means, [俺、私は(designating yourself)]この・その・あの時計欲しいです。Notice in Japanese, there’s 3 different ways to say “that”, and they’re all contingent on how far away the specified item is away from the user. この typically means right in front of you, その means nearby, within arm’s reach, あの means “over there” or something out of arm’s reach. We don’t have designations like that in English. 時計 means watch, and 欲しい is to want something. Notice how the structure of English is “I want that watch” but in Japanese It’s “[I] that watch want, and the [I] is optional, as it is often implied. The action in English comes much earlier than the subject, whereas the action in Japanese is always last. Can you think of ways that might influence the Japanese way of thinking? I sure can. Understanding a culture's language really gives you insight to who they are as a people, and it's something everyone should try to do at some point in their life.