Do Bilinguals Have Two Minds?

I’ve often felt that I act, think and even feel differently depending on the language I speak.  I’ve often heard from other bilinguals that they feel this way.  Recent research, published in the March edition of Psychological Science, suggests that there really is something to it.

British, German and Swedish researchers – linguists and psychologists – immersed themselves on the question of how language influences the brain.  Does a German speaking person have a different take on reality than an English speaking person?  And does that world change when switching from German to English?  The researchers found that, yes, language does determine how you see and interpret events.

An example of this is given on the website – The Conversation:

“We showed German-English bilinguals video clips of events with a motion in them, such as a woman walking towards a car or a man cycling towards the supermarket and then asked them to describe the scenes.

“When you give a scene like that to a monolingual German speaker they will tend to describe the action but also the goal of the action.  So they would tend to say “A woman walks towards her car” or “a man cycles towards the supermarket.”  English monolingual speakers would simply describe those scenes as “A woman is walking” or “a man is cycling”, without mentioning the goal of the action.

“The worldview assumed by German speakers is a holistic one – they tend to look at the event as a whole – whereas English speakers tend to zoom in on the event and focus only on the action.  (…) When it came to bilingual speakers, they seemed to switch between these perspectives based on the language context they were given the task in.”

You can read the entire article on: How the language you speak changes your view of the world.

As a writer, my next question is:  If a bilingual writer has a story idea, would the story end up completely different in plot, characters and all that, depending on the language they decide to write it in?



3 thoughts on “Do Bilinguals Have Two Minds?

  1. One thing to bear in mind is that the language we use is constantly modified by the interactions in whatever cultural environment we happen to be using, and everyone’s response to those interactions are dictated by early learning, cultural norms and probably personal proclivities. To give a practical example, the word ‘sauna’, while common to both English and Finnish, certainly has a very different meaning for a Finn than it ever does for anyone else.

  2. Already Rudolf Steiner wrote about the different cultural uses, understandings, and expressions of language. I dare say the mind wouldn’t change while using any other language, because cultural limitations cannot be transcended.

  3. As a member of a trilingual family, I have no doubt about the matter at all. Language shapes our thinking processes, and our thinking processes shape our use of language. Even after over thirty years of being together, my wife still often uses English words, but with Finnish thinking behind them (the reverse being true in my case as well), resulting in amusing misunderstandings at times. As to writing, the distaff side of the family actually prefers to write in English for certain things, as she feels there is often a world-wide view that is difficult to express in her native language. Certainly, there are times when she must use Finnish, as the thought processes she wishes to employ do not – for her – exist in any other language. In addition, we find that some writings do not easily cross the linguistic borders of translation. Certain English language novels become almost like another story altogether when translated in Finnish and, to give another example in the other direction, Kalevala in English is flat, dead and dull. Our perceptions of the world around us are shaped by the language we use, so yes, a bilingual would almost certainly write a completely different story from the same idea, depending on the choice of language. This, we find, is most marked when the languages in question are totally different, less so when they are closely related.

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