Before I went to Ireland, I considered myself as fairly fluent in English; now I do not. After I had been here for some time, I started wondering: When are you really fluent in a language? I can participate in conversations, even academic ones, and I have no problem with relying on my English. In spite of this, I still feel like a completely incompetent English speaker when someone uses idioms that I have never heard before.
A language consists of implicit cultural knowledge that non-native speakers do not have a chance to know about; even non-verbal communication within that language is different. Within different variations of the same language, difficulties of understanding can occur as the cultures are different from each other. For example, Americans on exchange in Ireland can sometimes find it hard to understand Irish, not just because of the accent, but because of the cultural differences; that is in spite of them both being derivations of English.
I do not think that language only consists of words. I think it consists of culture. To become fluent in a language, you have to be fluent in the culture. In another blog post, I argued that a language shapes your identity as you use the language to think. I still think that it is true, but I am now adding on to that. If the language is a product of the culture, so are you. You are a product of your native language and culture which your identity is bound to. I think it takes a lifetime to become fluent in another culture, just as it takes a lifetime to create an identity. With that being said, I still believe that knowing another language expands your identity; you become aware of another culture and another way of thinking.
In my last blog post, I left a deep question hanging in the air. The question was if bilingual people have a wider perception of the world than people who only have one language. The reason why I thought about it is that languages determine how we think and even what we can think. Therefore, having two languages must give you a huge advantage since you have two languages you can use while thinking.
Yesterday, someone asked which language I think in. Honestly, I am not always aware of it; it really depends on the situation. I switch a lot between Danish and English as one language sometimes describes a situation or a feeling much better than in the other. I can compare the two languages and use their differences as an advantage, just pick and choose.
In addition, it is also easier to understand non-native speakers as you understand why they struggle with sentence structures or the lack of words sometimes; with two languages, you know there are many differences. It is hard to express yourself if you lack the words for something that you have in your native language. The way you think is the foundation of your identity, but it is also connected to your language. Therefore, if you have two languages, your identity must automatically be broader as those two are correlated.
As your identity is dependent upon what you think and how you do it, your identity must be determined by having two languages as a bilingual person since you use both of them. With two languages or more, you have the opportunity to see the world through different “eyes”. So yes, I would personally claim that you have the possibility for a wider comprehension of the world if you are bilingual.
Language is a human construction which we usually take for granted even though we use it all the time. Languages are used in the art of communication and unconsciously: To talk, to understand, and to think. But what if there is more to the world than your language allows you to think?
All languages have untranslatable words which need to be described rather than translated as there are no equal terms in other languages. For example, in Denmark, we have “hygge”. This is an untranslatable word which we use all the time, especially when it is winter or dark outside. It can be a verb or an adjective. It is an atmosphere which typically requires good company, candlelight, food or a hot beverage and hand-knit socks. And ideally, a fireplace. Basically, “hygge” means having a good time in down to earth settings.
Even though “hygge” is only a part of the Danish language, it does not necessarily mean that non Danish speakers cannot experience it. Or maybe it does? According to Whorf, “people can only think about those things that their language can describe or express. Without the words or structures with which to articulate a concept, that concept will not occur” (Thomson 1994, p. 81). Non Danish speakers are not aware of the feeling until they have a word for it. Their minds cannot express it; therefore they cannot experience that exact word.
With the boundaries of your language, your identity is stuck in whatever language you have. You cannot think outside of your language as your brain cannot grasp something it does not have words for. It sounds scary and limiting, and it makes me wonder; does it mean that bilingual people have a wider perception of the world than people who are “bound” by only having one language?