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

Why We're Different People in Different Languages

God knocks over the building blocks we created after the Great Flood. In one furious sweep, he reduces the Tower of Babel to nothing, and in what seems to be a great premise for a reality television show, disperses everyone across the planet and changes their tongues. In our search for God, we came together, we shared the same communication system. A metaphor for multiculturalism and the unifying forces of humanity, 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. It could be the way our mouth snarls when we tap our tongue against our teeth or the steady rhythm of one language compared to the inconsistency of another. How our languages have manifested over time due to the influences of culture, language’s innate rhythm, sounds system, and more, yields a kaleidoscopic and perplexing 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 or a different mask.

In our attempts to learn a new language, we might try to synthesize all the parts of ourselves that were shattered when we built Babel. In cases of people with multiple personality disorder, people have allotted different languages according to their personalities. A sixteen-year-old boy in Nigeria woke up from a coma speaking fluent Spanish after a head trauma injury. “Learn a language, get a new soul,” a Czech proverb declares. Maybe deep in our psyche, we know all human language to be one.

As babies, we are whole in ways we never will be as adults, but time whittles down our infinite capacities for language. 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? 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” but turned pale when she heard “I love you”. We may perform at a higher intellectual level in our second language due to this psychological distance from the words we’re speaking.

But 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.