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Nov 20

About learning a language

discoveringtheworld1Learning a language is one of the most challenging tasks our brain will encounter in our whole life.

When we learn our mother tongue in the first years of our life, it means more than learning a language. It means understanding the world around us, understanding that objects exist even when they’re out of sight, and being able to name them in order to refer to them. At the beginning it’s more than „just learning a language“, it’s „learning the world“.

Moreover, learning one’s first language is closely linked to the development of our brain itself – our cognitive abilities, or in easier words „being able to think“. The language we learn when we’re a child defines how we think. It defines how our brain will be structured, and therefore how we understand the world.

An example? Imagine when you were a child, and you learned that you could call boys who lived in the same house as you and said Mum and Dad to your parents like you „brother“. If it was not a boy but a girl, you would call them „sister“. So you learned that the important factor when naming your siblings was if they were a boy or a girl.

In many other languages of the world, including Japanese, you don’t just differ between boy and girl when naming your siblings, but also whether they are younger or older than you. So you have four (totally different) words to name your different siblings. In the case of Japanese, they are: „oniisan“, „oneesan“, „otouto“ and „imouto“.

A Japanese person will be used to differentiate between younger and older sisters. For them, an „older brother“ is a totally different thing than a „younger brother“. They cannot understand how we seem not to care. When they learn German, they will at first add „younger“ or „older“ every time they use the word „brother“, because it’s important to them. Eventually, they will learn to just say „brother“, but only if they understand our way of thinking.

And the other way round, we might find it funny at first when learning Japanese or another language which differentiates, that we have to specify each time we use the term „brother“ if we mean an older one or a younger one. But we’ll get used to it with the time and accept that this differentiation in terms has not happened accidentially, but has developed for a reason. And this reason is that older siblings and younger siblings really are not the same thing, at least for speakers of this language.

So in the end, learning a new language means not only learning words and grammar, but to question one’s own thinking and to develop it further.

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It works both way rounds:

Our thinking defines our language AND our language defines our thinking.

You have no words for what you don’t think, but also you cannot think concepts you cannot express. So you cannot think what you don’t have words for.

There are some primitive tribes whose language is so simple, it only contains numbers up to three. Because they only count up to three, they don’t need a word for „four“. Instead of „four“, they say „many“. But – and this is important – because they don’t have the words for „four“, „five“, „six“ and so on, they are not able to think those concepts, either. If you show them five potatoes on one side, and six potatoes on the other, they won’t be able to tell, nor see, the difference.

This means that your language and it’s limits limit your thoughts, and learning a new language gives the opportunity to widen your thoughts and develop new concepts.

It helps you tap the full potential of your brain.

And that’s what makes learning languages so fascinating: You don’t just learn a language. You don’t just learn a language and a culture. You learn new ways to think.