How language shapes the way we think

Reinoud Slot

Or, how language shapes the way we experience life?!

The work we do with Zhimble brings us to different countries with different cultures. And also, we often meet people who have a different mother tongue and sometimes do not speak English well enough to have meaningful conversations. This challenges us to translate the important parts of the work into the language of the people we meet. To do this in a good way, we work with highly skilled translators. This is an enriching experience.

First of all we learn more about the English and the Dutch (my mother tongue) language. And secondly of course, we learn a lot about the other language. Since a lot of different languages have developed from the same roots, we dig back into the etymology, the origine of specific words. This teaches us not only about which translation to use, but also about the culture and about the history of the country. Sometimes a word does not really exist in a different language. Because the culture simply does not have a word for it.

One of the most famous example is the word “No”. There is no word in Chinese that expresses no. There are other ways to express no, but they all mean something slightly different. See more here. Sometimes because the word has fallen into disuse or has gone extinct. For example: Accountable in English is Rekenschap in Dutch and Rechenschaft in German. These are the literal translations, however, they are not used often any more.

Also the word “Growth” is interesting. In Dutch it translates directly into the word “Groei”. We can see the resemblance. However, in German, which is also a Germanic language, “Growth” translates into “Wachstum”. There is no German version of Growth.  Also in Swedish, “Growth” translates into “Växt”. Now “Wachstum” and “Växt” do translate back into English as “Waxing” and Dutch “Wassend”. In these languages we recognise the phrases “The waxing moon” and “de wassende maan”. Also, an adult or a grown-up in English translates into “ein Erwachsene” in German and “een volwassene” in Dutch which clearly relate back to “Waxing”, “Wachstum”, “Wassende”.

All these meanings lead to very interesting conversations in our work, mutually making an effort to clearly understand the essence of what the other person means when they use certain words. This increases mutual understanding and strengthens the connections.

In the linked TED talk by Lera Boroditsky, she gives a much broader perspective on languages. The title of her lecture is “How language shapes the way we think”. What if everyone would have this level of understanding when we meet someone else… It would transform our interactions for sure.

Link to video

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