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T’es qui, toi? Who are you? Quién eres?
Try to answer this question in different languages. Did you always say the same thing? Apparently you didn’t, but even translating your words might not yield the same results. Different languages have different vocabulary, different ways of expressing the most basic statements. There are things you can express beautifully in English while German doesn’t even have a word for it. This is an interesting, but rather obvious and technical insight. I want to go one step further today and claim that language influences not only your expression, but your whole way of being.

New skin

What you say is shaped by what you think, which is influenced by what surrounds you. Being surrounded by Austrian dialect all day will make you think in Austrian dialect, it will make you speak Austrian dialect unless you resist it. This was the case for me until the age of 18 when I moved to Munich. Suddenly, I was surrounded by High German, everyone spoke it and eventually I adapted my pronunciation. What seemed like a superficial change of dialect in my language had much greater implications than I expected. As I see it, High German enables you to articulate yourself with higher precision. It forces you to respect grammatical rules more consistently and be more accurate in your choice of words. What you lose, however, is a certain flow of language that dialect brings with it. There is something to Austrian language that still relaxes me when I speak it.

All of this is surely not true for everyone. What’s quite universal though is the fact that there are trade-offs in expression, accuracy and even emotion between English, German, Chinese and all the others. A language is like a new skin you put on that changes your appearance and perception.

Crossing the Atlantic a month ago forced a more radical change than just switching the dialect. Being surrounded by a language that is not your native one makes your brain turn upside down. Thoughts, dreams and words get an update: The English framework rules now. Most international students at Northwestern have gone through the process of leaving their mother tongue behind and bringing their own special accent to the English mix on campus.
What is it like, compared to German? Firstly, I would say it’s casual. The American accent seems to be optimized for small talk, for quick jokes and short stories. Secondly, it seems quite direct, quite explicit (referring to an earlier post) to me. There is a word for everything in this language, mostly if you want to be politically correct. An example is “gender”: There is no proper German word to describe it, so we use “Gender” as well.
These observations are still a work in progress, I’d be curious about your impressions with the English language!

Deeper than skin

Let’s move one layer deeper and talk about the voice. Have you ever examined the tone of your voice when speaking different languages? Where did your words originate, in your throat, in your mouth, at the tip of your tongue or even in your nose? Then, what did it sound like, which atmosphere did these different tones create?

I believe that languages have different “vibes”, including literal vibrations. Some make you sing high notes while others encourage your deep, serious voice. When switching, it’s almost as if you’d switch from one movie to the next, being a different actor in a different suit. Not that people would make an effort to sound like a chansonnier when speaking French, it’s the language itself that makes us change.

One summer, I’ve experienced a particularly strong example of the different vibes of languages. By the time, I was reading the English version of the third book of The Game of Thrones while being on vacation in Italy. I was used to reading about wolves, monsters, ice and fire and I was addicted to the plot. If you’re a fan, you can probably understand that I couldn’t survive after finishing my book, so I went to a bookstore and bought the next part of the series. In Italian. Suddenly, I was reading about lupi, mostri, ghiaccio and fuoco. It was hard to still take the story seriously without having images of the main characters eating pasta and drinking vino on the battlefield.  Until the end of the book, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the world or dragons was different despite the content being the same.

Coming back to reality, I think that we’re not that different from Jon Snow who suddenly became Italian. We adapt different identities when speaking different languages. It’s not just our ability to express our thought or the tone of our voice. It’s a different way of experiencing ourselves as a human being from head to tue. The emotions we feel, the ideas we have, our humour and our energy, all of these can change through the language we speak. When speaking Italian, I start talking louder, make more jokes, smile more than when I speak German. When in Munich, I think and talk in a more structured way than when back in Austria. Not because I force it, but because my body and brain make me behave this way. It’s exciting to see what’s happening to me here in the US.

A relevant factor

One might argue that what I’ve described is not that strongly related to language after all. It might be culture, habits and characteristics of countries and people instead, not just the power of words. In my opinion it’s all closely related. Whatever you call it, I believe that language is a relevant factor in choosing where we want to live and who we want to be. If it can change our state of mind so easily, we should be more aware of our language and what it’s doing to us. This is not just about foreign languages, but also about the language we use in our daily communication, in different groups of people.

кто ты? Chi sei? Wer bist du?

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Qi


    Excellent thoughts, Jakob! Here are my two cents.

    Last week, our lecturer in my creative writing class told us what writing really is for her: it isn’t to express what we already know but to understand what we do not yet grasp. (There are also studies which support this statement.) And ultimately, writing is language.

    She also told me once that it’s often fascinating to see non-natives write in a different language, as interesting linguistical approaches turn up that native speakers would usually not think of. The result is a unique style that this writer alone uses!

    You’re definitely bringing up some great points! Certain expressions just seem easier in English – I sometimes think about what I should do back at home, since I do not see a smooth way of expressing those phrases in German… Maybe I’ll just squeeze in some English.


    1. jakob.maier

      Thank you for this comment Qi! “Writing is to understand what we cannot yet grasp” – that’s an inspiring thought. Also love the idea about non-natives actually enriching language with new perspectives.
      We’ll have to bring some English slang back to Munich, that’s for sure.

  2. Eva Kowarik

    Lieber Jakob. Ich mag deinen Blog. Liebe Grüße aus der Heimat!

    1. jakob.maier

      Das freu mich sehr Eva! Liebe Grüße zurück.

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