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Languages Ltd. -- Writer's Poke #398

Last week I started watching a show from India called Shakira.  What immediately interested me about the show was the dialogue. Characters speak Hindi one moment and go straight into English the next. They switch back and forth between languages even within the same sentence.

This is apparently quite natural in India, but for me, it is quite jarring. I don’t speak Hindi, and so I’m listening to the dialogue, but I’m also watching the subtitles on the screen. Stranger still, the English dialogue doesn’t always match the English subtitles. So, here I am, watching a show that’s only partially in English, and even the parts in English are being “translated” into English for me.

It makes me think about how the process of thought works. I assume that most of us think in words. When we want to think in images, we can do so, but if I wanted to think about my car, for example, I would think “my car” to call up the image of my car. I wouldn’t simply bring a picture of my car to mind.

But what is it like to think in two or more languages simultaneously? Does each language draw from a different set of images? If I spoke German and English, for example, would I only have access to the “my car” image in English? And would I only have access to “beer” or whatever in German?

When I was in Europe last year, I liked to go into non-touristy places, like grocery stores, to see how people would talk to me. Sometimes they knew right away that I was an American, and they immediately talked to me in English. Other times, however, I was in a grocery store in Iceland or Denmark, and people addressed me in Danish or Icelandic. When I said I only spoke English, they would immediately transition into speaking English (assuming they spoke English) without missing a beat. And yet, I have to assume that one’s ability to think is limited by one’s vocabulary. If your vocabulary in English is weaker than your vocabulary in Russian, or whatever your native language might happen to be, doesn't that mean you’re a stronger thinker in Russian? 

To get back to Shakira for a moment, it seems like the characters move effortlessly between languages, but is that really the case? Or, is it that they switch languages when the context of what they are thinking about dictates they do so? That is, their ability to think in each language is actually in some ways limited, which is why they don’t speak every word in Hindi or every word in English? They don’t have complete access to either language, and therefore they patch together two languages to serve the purpose of one complete process of thinking?

How would you explain your thinking process? Do you think more in words or images? If you know more than one language, what determines which language you use?

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein


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