By Daniel Cubias, Being Latino
According to many sources, Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire can speak more languages than anyone on the planet: 115. But before you feel too intimidated, keep in mind that the professor is fluent in a mere 30 or so.
One has to wonder how balancing all those verb tenses and irregular conjugations has affected his mind (although, as we know, people who speak multiple languages have more agile brains). In fact, there is some evidence that the languages we speak influence the very way we think.
This concept comes from the psycholinguistic branch of psychology. Intellectuals like Piaget, Skinner and Chomsky have spent a lot of effort trying to explain how and why humans use language. But only recently have studies implied that the language “that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shapes our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter.”
For example, green and blue are separate colors in English but are shades of the same color in some languages, so “our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.”
Now all this might seem interesting but trivial until one considers how language — particularly the contentious relationship between English and Spanish — is playing out in America. Language is crucial in debates over immigration, assimilation, political power, identity and the future of the country. You can’t even order a pizza in Spanish without infuriating someone.
Now, if English and Spanish speakers think differently at times, what are the consequences? Well, English is known for being complex, even perplexing at times.
Spanish, in contrast, is more poetic and, yes, weaker. Keep in mind the dreaded Mande Mindset, which some experts believe influences Spanish speakers to be more subservient.
The cultural and political consequences of that dynamic are not too hard to figure out.
Psycholinguistic theory holds that English and Spanish speakers may have subtle differences in how they process the same situation. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that a recent study implied that Greeks may have more trouble than Germans when it comes to economic planning, because of how the languages express the future tense. The theory also implies that speakers of Arabic are more susceptible to flowery oration, and that people who use an obscure Australian aboriginal tongue have a better sense of direction. At the very least, psycholinguistics might explain why it’s so hard to be funny in Chinese.
So, are English speakers predestined to overwhelm Spanish speakers? Not necessarily. But it’s worth considering if our language provokes us to be stronger, friendlier, more thoughtful, more emotional or just plain louder.
Naturally, if these theories are true, they provide an immediate objection to bilingual education. After all, those kids are going to grow up with split personalities.
This article first appeared in Being Latino.
Daniel Cubias is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Being Latino, his work can be found in such publications as the Huffington Post, Change.org, Aqui magazine, and his website, the Hispanic Fanatic. In addition, he has been published in many literary journals and won the occasional writing contest. He is a Wisconsin native who still roots for his hometown Milwaukee Brewers. He is way too much into horror movies, and he is inexplicably still unable to tune his guitar properly.
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