How Language Alters Our Perception of the World

Article by BRiYA - Titled: How Language Alters Our Perception of the World

Not just because of the sweet, lyrical and at times comical way the words roll off my tongue. Or the way it reminds me of those late nights held tightly in a handsome Italian’s arms. I’m in love with Italian because of how the language is formed.

I should make a disclaimer here that I am not a linguist and have not studied languages in-depth. Italian is something that I learned through necessity and desire.

When I lived in Italy for two years it was in a small town. Few of the business owners spoke English. I had to learn to survive. And also, to have a social life.

LANGUAGE LEARNING

Anyone who knew me in the first year of my studies in Italy can attest that my language learning skills are subpar. I’ve made many errors in public and have accidentally yelled profanities across a piazza. (Shouting the equivalent of the ‘f’ word to someone you’ve just met is generally not a polite thing to do, even if you think it’s a slang way to say goodbye.)

But if you want to date Italians, you need to either find one who speaks decent English or learn Italian.

So that’s what I did. I acclimated myself so deeply in the culture that people mistook me for Italian — thanks largely to my ambiguous, latina-esque appearance — until I opened my mouth.

Italian was not something that came easily to me. It is still a challenge when I want to form a more complex thought. Unfortunately I am tied down to my limited grammatical understanding and vocabulary.

However, it’s a language that inspires me and will forever be held closely in my heart. Learning Italian has allowed me to fill in the holes or adjust where my English language no longer serves me or enslaves me.

FINDING THE SEPARATION

I find languages fascinating because they tell a lot about the culture. And when I started to learn Italian, I realized something. They don’t attribute certain aspects of a person to be about that person, rather it is a characteristic given to that person.

Let me explain. If I wanted to say how old I am in English I would say: 

I am 31 years old.

Whereas in Italian I would say:

Ho 31 anni. (I have 31 years.)

Not only does this help me to not take on the years to be a part of who I am as a person, but rather to see that it is something that I have, something I’ve earned.

This is the same for hunger and thirst — I have hunger/thirst, rather than I am hungry or thirsty. It’s less about me and therefore less of a weakness, and more of a state of being.

For me, this changes a lot of things. Since language is like the lens through which we see the world, choosing how I want to speak about things, can change how I feel about them and myself.

“Language can play a big role in how we and others perceive the world, and linguists work to discover what words and phrases can influence us, unknowingly.” 

The power of language: How words shape people, culture

NEW PERSPECTIVE

Understanding this about language and through the studying of other cultures, I have been able to use this knowledge to my benefit. If I can attribute certain aspects of life (like getting older) to be something that I possess, rather than who I am, I am more accepting.

(Example: Would you feel better saying “I have wrinkles” or “I am wrinkly”? I don’t know about you, but I find the latter to be displeasing, which makes me scowl in a way that creates truth to the former sentence.)

If I believe that I am all these 31 years, that means all the bad choices I made in my past are literally part of who I am. I am the years. But if I were to instead approach it by having 31 years, I am able to see that I have the life experience but, most importantly, I am not defined by it.

By reframing the language of how I describe myself, I can shift the paradigm of who I think I am. This frees me to not feel shame about how I acted in my past as I was discovering who I was. Instead I get the opportunity to view it as a learning lesson. Years of pain and misery are a part of my life experience, but are no longer a part of my self.

A WHOLE NEW WORLD (OF NOUNS)

Language learning has opened me up to a new world. Something I find interesting is that in English we focus on adjectives, while Italian and other languages pay more attention to the noun.

For instance, in English to describe someone, I could say “He has blue eyes.” But in Italian you would literally say “He has eyes blue,” or a more appropriate sentence would be “He has eyes that are blue.” The focus stays on him and not on his eyes. 

This incites great curiosity in me to understand how Italians view people and the world. Is their language a contributing factor to why they have a deeper sense of community? Because the way they speak and think is more people-centric?

I’m sure there’s a deep dive into a rabbit hole when it comes to linguistics and I by no means consider myself to be an expert. However, I will definitely say I’m an enthusiast for understanding how language changes our perception of the world. 

I look forward to learning more about the Italian culture and language, and in the meantime, I thank them for teaching me a new way to think.


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