Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache
What language do you think in?
I’ve been asked this question too many times to even remember what my responses have been. La verdad es que hace unos años no tenía idea de cómo contestar esta pregunta. Do we even think in a language? I don’t think so. I know there are huge debates still going on about this but for what it’s worth, here’s my 2¢:
-The first 12 years of my life were spent growing up in Mexico City (durante los cuales toda mi vida diaria era en español) and learning intensive English for 6 years (one full year of only English before first grade, and then every year where 1/3 of the day was just English vocab and grammar)
-Then I moved to the U.S. where my entire lifestyle for 13 years was in English, but I still spoke Spanish with my family [roughly] every day.
–Nel mezzo di tutto questo, ho cominciato ad imparare italiano per due anni e poi sono andato in Italia per pratticare un po’ durante sei mesi
This balance is probably the reason why people think I’m such a good candidate to answer that question, but for the past few years my answer in a nutshell has been:
“I don’t believe that we think in a language. I think we communicate in a language, but it’s not until we formalize a concept/idea into words that we put a language to something; I don’t see a dog and think ‘perro/dog/cane!’ unless I am telling someone about it.”
This might seem like a weird concept if you don’t speak other languages really fluently (I swear I’m not bragging here).
Conversations: When I imagine a scenario, I think of conversations in the language that I use with the other person; I don’t imagine conversations with my parents in English or with [most of] my friends in Spanish. When it comes to my inner monologue (which is what most people are truly worried about when they ask), it’s actually a pretty conscious decision about which language I use so there isn’t something automatic that you or anyone can claim as “my thinking language.” The best example that I have to prove this, is one of my favorite things in this world: emotions/feelings. You might think that “people think in a language” but when someone experiences an emotion, people don’t tend to think of the word(s): “[sad]”…or… “I’m sad”… they just feel/experience it. That’s why I think occasionally someone might ask you how you’re feeling and your best response is: “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s something like ___ and ___ at the same time.” We just think/feel whatever that idea is and then we put a language on it if we decide to focus and talk/ponder/write about whatever it is that we are feeling/thinking/experiencing. If I really want to get nerdy about this, I would talk about Daniel Kahneman and the whole System 1/fast and System 2/slow ways of thinking… but I won’t bore you with that (although it truly is fascinating so you couldn’t be bored).
I could talk about this for ages, but I’ll just point out that there are certain human expressions and ways to communicate that transcend languages (such as standing dumbfounded and saying “…uuuhhhh…” when you don’t know what to say… which I’ve been abusing lately). I’m not saying these are universal, but in the Western cultures that I’ve grown up in, these tend to be well-understood despite what language you speak, and they’ve worked out well with other cultures. That’s why my inner monologue will sometimes be “hmm… you’re an idiot…” or other times it might be “chale güey, ahora si la regaste” (Non è troppo commune che il mio primo pensiero sia “Ma dai!” ma ho cominciato a praticare questo). If you asked me about my “mental language” I couldn’t decide between English or Spanish because I am usually ready to communicate in either one and therefore neither of them requires ‘thinking’. If you ask me what my most dominant language is, I would likely say English because it’s the one I’ve used more often, more recently and for much more complicated tasks. Pero eso no significa que tenga ningun problema escribiendo en español. The fact is that I am better at English grammar/punctuation/mannerisms/etc and that’s why I even experiment with breaking the ‘rules’ on purpose (if it helps me communicate better and eliminate/prevent ambiguities). Eso afecta un poco la manera en que escribo español porque no tengo todas las reglas y la gramática muy frescas dentro de mi mente y acabo rompiendo reglas sin querer. Y la verdad los acentos son lo que más se me a puesto difícil.
In Conclusion: My experience with languages has led me to believe that we don’t think in a language, but we communicate in a language. Therefore when you are truly fluent in more than one language and someone asks you what language you think in, it becomes a complicated question with one hell of an answer that’s hard to grasp. I remember reading a philosophy article where the author stated that someone in a quiet room might think “all of us are silent” but as soon as he makes such a statement, it becomes false.
It’s something like that, but with words and ideas.
People say that German is a complicated and ugly language, but before coming here, I read about what a precise and versatile language it is, and I will try to give some examples in a minute so I can show you why it has been pretty exciting to learn.
I will admit, I have taken it a bit slower because of the little rant that I posted ^up there^.
While I understand that the best way to learn a new language is by quite literally ‘becoming a baby’ and forcing yourself to talk and think only in that language, I am scared of sacrificing what I have in English and Spanish…(the reason why I have not included Italian so far into this post is because it does take me a bit more effort to communicate in that language; you might catch me speaking to you in English when I should be using Spanish, or you might notice my Spanish accent sneak out when I say something in English, but Italian is something that I have to be around a little bit more in order to “think” in that language, if we still want to use those terms)… It should be obvious that I can express myself in English/Spanish without a second thought and I can immediately understand something that is being said in those languages, but there are several occasions when I can think of a word in one language, but not in another. You might not think this is a huge deal, but I had this experience on a train recently when I read “cinnamomo” in italian, I thought of “cinnamon” in English and then got stuck for a bit trying to think of “canela” in Spanish. I understand that it’s natural for this to happen, but the reason why I have been a bit slow with German is because I don’t want to force myself to think and communicate exclusively in German, and then end up losing the huge edge that I have with English vocab, semantics and grammar (I say “huge edge” because if you took all my standardized test scores and made your selection to create a confection of comprehension sections there’s a connection in the direction epitomizing the perfection of a human erec… nevermind…also because I love wordplay and word ambiguity 🙂 ).
Anyway, back to German though….
Here are two reasons why I find German to be such a cool language:
1. The other day I was working on an English-Spanish translation and I found the sentence:
“Our mission is to encourage, educate and empower families to be the best advocate they can be for their children within the education system.”
Which I translated to:
“Nuestra misión es animar, educar y capacitar a las familias para que sean el mejor defensor que puedan ser para sus hijos en el sistema educativo.”
There are a few other possible translations, but Google Translate translated it to:
“Nuestra misión es animar, educar y capacitar a las familias para ser el mejor defensor que puede ser para sus hijos en el sistema educativo.”
It’s pretty essential that you use the proper tense here (i.e. use “sean” instead of “ser” and change “they can be” into “que puedan ser“) so I realized that Google was a bit confused in how to use the proper one and it didn’t understand the idea behind using one tense vs the other. As I did this, I thought “Man, I would NOT want to learn the rules for how to tell the difference between using one tense or the other/No manches ¡gracias a dios que ya hablo español!” (See what I did there? The same idea communicated differently in two languages 😉 ) Then I looked up how many verb tenses there are in each language. Officially, it turns out English and German have roughly 12, whereas Spanish and French have about 22/23. Some might be similar to one another, but each language has that feature, so it seems like there are definitely more options and conjugations in the Romance/Latin languages than there are in the Germanic ones. This made me very happy that I am using English and Spanish to learn German (Spanish has honestly helped me understand some differences between English and German) as opposed to using English and German to learn Spanish.
[[ In case you were wondering, I think the above sentence in Italian would be “La nostra missione è incoraggiare/esortare, educare e dare il potere alle famiglie per diventare il miglior difensore che possano essere per i loro bambini dentro del sistema educativo” (This translation might be slightly biased by my Spanish and the similarities between both languages). I am not sure how many tenses Italian has but I believe it’s similar to Spanish/French and potentially even less. ]]
2. Making up words
For a while, I had heard of German’s tendency to make up words (not to be confused with “Germans’ tendency” which I don’t know if it’s true. It could be an Austrian/Swiss thing). Apparently there’s a good reason why so many influential people have been native German speakers, particularly in philosophy but also in other areas (Einstein, Freud, Nietzsche, Kant, Marx, Schopenhauer, E.F. Schumacher,etc etc etc). In German you can have a root that expresses an idea and then make it into a ‘thing’ (in other words: in German, it’s a thing to make up things). This is probably the single most exciting reason why I told myself I want to learn German at least relatively well. I mentioned in Reason#1 that I learned about how complex Spanish is compared to German when I was doing an English-Spanish translation, but I also learned how cool German can be while I was trying to translate the English verb “to host”. Since “a host” is “un/a anfitrión/anfitriona” I figured I could talk about “anfitrionar” and it wouldn’t be a party foul. But no. According to the dictionary “anfitrionar” doesn’t exist and using it would make all hell break loose (¡¿De veras?! Me cae que por eso el Spanglish es tan popular con los que están cerca de mi generación que no hablar tan bien el español). This is not a problem in German though.In German you can make up words by throwing two other words together. It’s a scary thought to imagine myself learning German really good… just kidding… “learning German really WELL” because I could see myself making things up left and right. One of the examples that people use to show German simplicity is how krank = sick and Krankenhaus = hospital = literally “sick house” (aka home for the sick), but I want to go into a more in-depth and cooler example with a word that I’m trying to learn well right now….
By the way, I looooooove the fact that German makes all nouns have capital letters. This is SO good for eliminating ambiguities that we could run into in English. One terrible example off the top of my head would be the sentence:
“I would love to have a Breakfast massacre” vs “I would love to have a breakfast Massacre”
The first sounds delicious, the other one sounds like you need some serious help (i.e. “massacring a breakfast” vs “having a massacre at breakfast”)
Wesen – noun –
1. being, creature, entity
2. essence, nature, character, personality
I think this word is awesome because pretty much all of its meanings have something in common, and the best word I would have to summarize them is “existence”.
Regardless, from this little “root” noun there are other words like “wesentlich“ which means “essential, important, fundamental” and can be used as an adjective OR a verb (so ‘essentially’ it would mean “essentially, fundamentally, etc“). Other examples are:
Wesenlos – adj –insubstantial, incorporeal, meaningless — “los” can mean “loose, gone” so “wesenlos” is like saying “essence gone“
Wesensgleich – adj – identical in character — “gleich” means “same, similar, equal, unchanged”
Lebewesen – n – living being — “leben” means “to live”
–Gewesen is the past form of the verb “to be”… which probably doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but as a ‘philosophizer’ that I am, it’s still cool
I’m sure there are other words that have the root ‘wesen‘ somewhere in them but what makes this awesome is that even if those words ‘translate’ into something that seems different/weird in English, all of these words probably have some sort of “existence” idea as their core. This is why I think that German can be such a fascinating and precise language. It allows you to create a word out of an idea and then create variations of that idea depending on whether you’re talking about a thing, a quality, or an action. After learning about all this it doesn’t surprise me that throughout history and philosophy, German was the native language of so many people and texts which have literally changed the world (pun intended).
6 thoughts on “Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache”
You’re going to be fluent in 10 languages before I ever master my second one…that’s not fair.
Haha. I doubt it. German is taking quite some time. But let’s learn Swedish next? Everything I keep hearing about Sweden is pretty awesome.
I really enjoyed reading your 2¢ here. I largely agree with what you’ve said about language just being the means of expression rather than a more creative force when it comes to thinking. The analogy with emotions works really well, and it’s one that I’ve used in similar conversations in the past too. I switch my inner monologue into other languages fairly often as a way of practising ones that I’m learning, but that’s something different to thinking in a language more naturally, I’d say. While on the whole I’d agree that the language depends on the context, I have found myself reverting back to thinking in German when in conversation with other people and then having to translate into English, but it’s only been noticeable even to me when I’ve come across a word that doesn’t have a neat English translation. In those cases, I’d argue that I’m not necessarily thinking in German as a language, but as a mindset, and that one of the benefits of a language is the ideas made possible by the language’s ability to describe and communicate those possibilities. The best way I can describe it is that I think in nebulous terms and that when I need to communicate those ideas, I give them a fixed shape in language, but sometimes those shapes are neater in one language than another, and it requires a bit more work to get the cloud to fit the shape of one particular language.
I definitely agree about thinking in nebulous terms and about how hard it can be to then use language to express those ideas (I’m guessing you’ve definitely seen those lists of “untranslatable words in other languages”? haha). That’s pretty much what I want to describe to people when they ask what language I think in, but I imagine it’s pretty hard to understand when you don’t speak other languages fluently.
Last night I had a pretty interesting conversation that kind of relates to this though:
How good is your math in German/French?
Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to seems to agree that we suck at doing math in a language that isn’t the one we originally learned math in (i.e. even though English is my more dominant language, I usually have to calculate numbers in Spanish, or else I screw up even basic math). THAT is one issue I’m still not sure how to answer yet, but I look at it as: thinking with emotions(language) is different than thinking with logic(math). Or maybe I just haven’t internalized the rules/language of math as well as I have other languages and that’s why “thinking in a language” plays a role when I do math and not when I express myself.
I’m a huge fan of those lists! I’ve had some difficult in explaining it to other people too when they don’t have a second (or third etc.) to a high standard. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly great at math these days, despite choosing to do it for my last years at school, but I think it’s pretty much the same standard, regardless of the language I do it in. I tend to visualize the numbers, so it’s only when I’m talking about it that I have to express that in language, and then it’s just a case of remembering the right word for each number. I’m a bit slower in other languages when doing more complicated, but that’s just because I haven’t got as much practice in using the numbers as I do in English. A lot of people I know say that you always count in your native language, but I don’t anymore. A while ago I decided to see if I could switch it and so just for the hell of it, I learnt to count in Dutch and made an effort to always say the numbers in Dutch. Several months later, and now if I’m counting out loud I automatically start in Dutch rather than English.