(Adapted from an article in Corriere della sera)
It is said that Charlemagne once said: “Knowing a second language is to possess a second soul.” Also convinced of this was the American linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf who, in 1940, postulated the theory that language shapes the brain to the point that 2 people with different languages will always be cognitively different. This thesis went out of fashion with the studies of Noam Chomsky, who in the ‘60s and ‘70s proposed the theory of a “universal grammar” as the general common basis for all types of language.
Beginning in the ‘80s, some scholars began to re-evaluate Whorf so that today it is believed that beyond similar conceptual foundations, each language implies its own “world view” and infuses it in the person who speaks that language. An example is the sense of guilt and justice. In English, when a vase is broken, our expressions tend to imply the presence and responsibility of someone. Whereas, in Spanish, for example, one tends to simply say that the base is broken. The English expressions are based on an Anglo-Saxon tendency to punish those who break the rules, even more than to compensate the victims.
According to a growing number of studies, language is able “to shape” our brain, beliefs, and attitudes changing the way people think and act. To be a native speaker of English, Chinese, Italian, or Russian has different effects on the architecture of thought. This happens because each language emphasizes different elements of an experience, forging a specific way of seeing the world.
There are cultural influences, explains Jubin Abutalebi, cognitive neurologist and professor of neuropsychology at the University of San Raffaele Hospital in Milan. “The word that indicates the same object in different languages can acquire different shades of meaning.” In Chinese, “dragon” refers not only to a fantastic and scary animal but above all to a symbol of luck, strength, and wisdom. Inevitably, a Chinese person “sees” differently from a Westerner who might only consider a dragon as something completely unreal. The same thing happens to a bilingual person: a dragon will be less scary to an Anglo-Chinese than to an Englishman. “The cultural vision underlying the words of different languages can affect those who know more than one language—emphasizes Abutalbi. Having to process languages with semantic ranges, the brain combines individual elements from the languages the person knows. Typically, those who master several languages are more curious about cultures, which facilitate more openness and diverse views.
The influence of language on our ego, however, is even more profound, with amazing effects on conscious decisions. One study has shown that when we express ourselves in a second language, we tend to have fewer moral qualms. The participants in this experiment agreed to sacrifice one person to save five—making a “utilitarian” choice –more often in the second language than when they had to give their opinion in the mother tongue. In the latter case, what prevailed was the moral prohibition not to kill. “A language that is not learned from birth is less influenced by emotions. While you are speaking in the second language you have to exert more cognitive control to “turn off” the mother tongue, which is the carrier of morality, ethics, and feelings,” says Abutalebi.
Language can even modulate attitude towards savings, as discovered by the economist Keith Chen of UCLA. The Chinese, who do not have a precise tense to indicate the future, have a propensity to put aside 30% more money than those who speak more specifically about the future. Perhaps this is because “to linguistically identify the future in a distinct way from the present makes it seem far away, making it far less motivating to save money.”
It has also been discovered that to indicate the gender of words influences one’s world vision. One study of Hebrew and Finish children revealed that the former noticed on average one year earlier whether they were male or female because their language almost always assigns a gender to words, while this doesn’t happen in Finland.
Perhaps Shakespeare was wrong: that which we call a rose would not smell as sweet if we called it by another name.