Language within the human species is the foundational aspect of our cognition, culture, and communication. As a tool, it has allowed us to communicate, convey emotions, convey thoughts, and foster bonds. Every one of the 7,000 existing languages is made of its own set of nuances and variations that unveils different ways of thinking and expressing thought.
Beyond cognitive flexibility, this increasingly globalized world calls for the ability to speak more than one language (bilingualism). Embracing bilingualism not only enhances cognitive abilities but fosters a deeper appreciation for linguistic heritage. It allows individuals to traverse the cultural landscape, encouraging empathy within them; empathy being one of the 6 facets of understanding.
We as humans are empathetic beings that seek social acceptance and social community. In order to fulfill this role, we need to be able to understand one another. The ability to understand is broken down into 6 vital components (the 6 facets of understanding). These are the capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess. None of these are possible without language. Furthermore, each one of these components, that allows us to understand, is shaped differently by each language.
Language is inherently embodied by the culture in which it is developed and because of this, our differences in understanding one another can largely be a result of our culturally varied forms of understanding.
These variations in the language may seem minuscule but the scale of difference they can create within interaction and the way of thinking can be quite large. An example to consider here can be Hindi. Within Hindi, there is an elaborate system of honorifics and politeness levels that comes into play when addressing people, based on age, social status, and familiarity. Where English has “you” to address people within formal and informal situations, Hindi has a complex system of pronouns and verb forms that provides a more distinctive difference in the level of politeness as well as the difference in a formal and informal situation. This simple difference between Hindi and English changes the nature of interaction within the community altogether, changing relationships between people and the way in which they perceive one another.
Another example to further solidify the scale of linguistic variation is drawing on the differences in the alphabet of the English language and the character system that Mandarin speakers use. One unique difference of Mandarin when compared not only to English but most Western languages is the absence of the alphabet. Instead of the alphabet, Mandarin uses characters that each represent a word or a part of the word. So there are no letters that represent sounds and this makes learning the language very challenging for people more accustomed to Western languages – especially those that are more used to phonetic writing systems. This difference in the languages also changes the way in which both languages are read and hence the cognitive skill required for them both is completely different from one another.
Considering how each of these 7,000 languages follows different rules that allow people to think differently brings to light the importance of preserving the different languages around the world. Within the rapidly globalizing world, more dominant languages – such as English – are causing the marginalization and even the eventual extinction of a lot of smaller languages. If this were to continue, we could risk losing unique insights into human thought as well as lose the cultural heritage that is embedded within these languages. This is why it is pivotal that we revitalize languages that are slowly beginning to disappear to preserve the range of thought it gives us. Languages are not just a means of communication but a symbol of identity, one that should be preserved and celebrated around the world. So embrace the languages you can speak and understand how your unique dialect permits you to think and interpret the world.
Cover: Pexels/Viktor Talashuk
Edited by: Patricia Beschea