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  • Writer's pictureArlette Ferber

Those who know many languages, live as many lives as the languages they speak.

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

What language does to you.

When you list the languages you speak and interact with, you notice that you can relate to each language in a different way. For example, you like one language because of the sound, another you experience as difficult or one you would never want to miss. That's an attitude. This can be divided into three components.

- The cognitive component: thoughts and beliefs towards the language

- An affective component: emotions, feelings towards the language.

- A behavioural component: behaviour that originates from thoughts and feelings

An important misunderstanding is that multilingualism is the sum of languages. As if it's a doubling of the languages you speak and write well. Each language has its own place, they can complement each other and are active in a different social context with different social influences. As a result, they do not have the same function. So they exist next to each other and can each have a different function in the interpretation of these three components. Sometimes the language serves as a coat hanger to which emotions and experiences are hanging. With our feelings we colour our perception and with it the way we express ourselves. If you give a feeling a word, you will be able to experience this feeling more easily in the future. However, foreign languages do not have the same emotional impact as the mother tongue. In a foreign language, the emotional reaction is less intense. When expressing emotions in words, there is room for nuance. And that nuance is influenced by the three components mentioned above. If we the same story or text in different languages, we are culturally frame switching. According to research, language has the prime ability to influence Cultural Frame Switching, CFS, on one's personal values/visions, but also on the expression of one’s personality. So when multilinguals switch between their languages, they observe the world differently and show different aspects of themselves.

Cultural and social factors also affect the cognitive component. So the total sum of values, nature and what is man-made. So we adapt our behaviour to the linguistic and cultural norms that go with a particular language. One can also express one's introvert or more extroverted side.

Language is also directly and indirectly influenced by external factors. Whether this is a crucial factor remains to be seen.

Maybe now is a good time to ask yourself how this works for you. For myself, it's like this:

In English, I'm more analytical

In French more long-winded

More hesitant in German

In Dutch most comfortable

My grocery lists are often very multilingual

There is also another phenomenon in terms of language: the same text resulting in different length when translated in a different language. In other words, which (European) languages are the longest and have the most words?

English translation is usually the shortest, while French and Spanish take up about 20% more space. Dutch results are in between this. It's striking that the German translation uses fewer words , but that the words are on average much longer.

  • Text loosely based on "Multilingualism" Bachelor thesis J.T. Longerich

  • Copyright © Arlette Ferber. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment

Wendela Kilmer
Wendela Kilmer
Jan 25, 2023

Very interesting. I am Dutch, but have lived abroad for decades. I speak English fluently and have spoken it on a daily basis for most of my adult life. I notice that when I visit family in Holland and speak Dutch that my attitude/manner/personality makes a subtle shift. I'm not sure how to explain it. I now live in France, but my French is only 'functional' so I'm much less confident when communicating. True enough, my shopping lists are multi-lingual! I once read about a test where bi-lingual people were given a picture and asked to tell a story about it in one language. At a later time they were given the same picture and asked to tell a story…

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