Monday, May 7, 2012

Am I Equal to Myself?

When acquiring a new language you learn much more than just new words for familiar things. You acquire a new way of thinking about the world and a new way of seeing things. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” Ludwig Wittgenstein said when discussing the idea of linguistic determinism. What are the exact ways the language determines our vision of the world is the topic of numerous researches. What I would like to discuss here is does a speaker represent himself or herself differently when speaking different languages?

Since my birth I was surrounded by Russian speakers and the Russian cultural environment. No doubt the Russian language has had the greatest impact on the way I see the world and communicate with it. I’ve been using the Russian language to represent myself to society since I started talking. With all the capacities available in Russian I expressed my likes and dislikes, I set up social distance when communicating and follow other people’s settings and so on by choosing the specific language means. Let’s call the individual language preferences in self-representation “linguistic identity”.

Now I have moved to Canada, and the only person who can speak Russian with me is my husband. Since I like meeting new people, I take every chance to socialize in the new place. Obviously, I have to use English and its means for building, developing and maintaining relations and for representing myself to others. I’ve found that my English identity is not quite equal to my Russian identity.

I can partly attribute the difference between my two identities to my limited vocabulary; however, I suspect, the problem lays much deeper. In English, for example, I am less judgmental than in Russian. In Russian, many words initially include the judgmental meanings, and you can’t help but judge about things. I think, I’m less discriminative in many aspects when speaking English. Sometimes I feel that I miss gender - and status- specific grammatical features in English that I broadly use in Russian. In fact, it’s another me, who speaks English.

Do you think we indeed develop another identity when learning a new language? Or do you think the impact of the language is overrated, and it makes no difference for your self-representation what language you speak as long as you do it fluently? Please share your opinion with me in your comments.

Here is a short thought-provoking video of Rob Bryanton who talks about the complicated relations between language and mind.