1197 views


British is my first language and in fact the only language in which I can fully communicate and express myself, a language in which the words role of my tongue with such ease and such adequacy that I have made writing my main profession. Is it not so with other languages, much to my dismay, yet if my sub-par ability to communicate in Italian, my second language, has given me anything other than the gift of forming relationships and understanding others who do not speak my primary language, it is the greater understanding of my own language which I fully appreciate.


The relationship between language and thought is a close one, although I do not believe it is so close as to be a relationship of complete interdependence. To quote Ian McEwan in his novel, Enduring Love, "it is not true that without language there is no thought. I possessed a thought, a feeling, a sensation and I was looking for its word." Although we may be able to experience feeling without the ability to verbalise, once verbalisation does become an option, we are certainly limited to the frame in which our linguistic image is held up in. Is it a portrait or a landscape? A circle or a square? What shape are our thoughts being framed in?


On first developing language skills, we learn that a sentence should be a single thought containing a subject and a verb. Attending a small country school with limited resources meant that despite being a 90s kid, I read the Janet and John/Peter and Jane books, a series which used repetition of to teach young children to read, as much as any baby boomer did, "here is Peter, here is Jane". "Peter is here and Jane is here." And during this primary language learning, we of course become accustomed to using particular verbs in particular situations, patterns which although they may not create the thoughts themselves, certainly have a hand in guiding our thinking along certain pathways and avenues.


The verb "to be" dominates the English language, yet this is not so with other languages. In Italian, the verb "to have" or "to make" is far more commonly used. Hence why a native Italian speaker may say "I made a lesson," or "I have thirty years" and why as an English native speaker speaking Italian, I have to retrain my brain to use verbs in certain situations where I feel it is unnatural to use them. For example, I am used to saying, "I am twenty six years old." Notice the use of the verb "to be." In Italy, I have to adapt to using the verb "to have," in this situation, the sentence being "Io ho ventisei anni."


Such differences represent variations in the way cultures think about the world around them. How can one have one's age? Surely age is not a possession? Well, if you want to get onto the train of thought, how the heck can anyone be their age? Without getting too Buddhist here, we are no more our age than we are our sex, height, race etc. Subtly, without realising, I had taken for granted that age was a quality of being, something I was.


Such is the effect of only speaking one language, you do not see the rules as relative. If I was given the option now between either the verb "to be" or the verb "to have" being more appropriate in terms of age, I would have to opt for "to have". In my mind, it makes more sense to possess an age, rather than to be it, although when I first learnt how to say age in Italian, I perceived the concept of possessing age as bizarre.


In reality, both represent a linguistic pattern through which we communicate with others, provide information and measure our lives. Essentially, the aim should always be to use language as a vehicle, all the while retaining consciousness of the difference between the vehicle carrying us and the earth beneath. And this is an awareness that becomes apparent when we dip our toes into the world of bilingualism. When we are unaware of the vehicle, we are led down linguistic rabbit holes into wonderland, a world in which characters play around with language and meaning, and consequentially, our own sense of self. In the story of Alice in Wonderland, Carroll provides a parody of a popular moralistic poem of the time in the crocodile's own rendition, "how doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail and pour the waters of the Nile on every golden scale! How cheerfully he seems to grin, how neatly spreads his claws and welcomes little fishes in with gently smiling jaws!" The original version, which Alice attempts to recite, is a picture of christian hard work with biblical reference, "how doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour, and gather honey all the day from every opening flower! How skilfully she builds her cell! How neat she spreads the wax! And labours hard to store it well with the sweet food she makes. In works of labour or of skill I would be busy too: for Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do. In books, or work, or healthful play, let my first years be past, that I may give for every day, some good account at last." Alice in Wonderland has that nightmarish quality where meanings change regularly and and you cannot be sure of anything, repeatedly the crocodile poses the question to Alice to which she can give no answer, "who are you?"


If you only know one set of linguistic rules, you are in the dark until a second language shows us something of our mother tongue. To really get to know our original language, we must learn another. Just as if you never travel, you will think of your own place and culture as truth, so you will do with language.


The pillar stone of the English language happens to be the subject of the sentence, without which, our language doesn't work. Only through the process of acquiring a second language did the reliance of the English language on the subject/verb relationship become apparent to me. I could see the twists and turns, the endless circles and hoops which lead to such nonsensical sentences as "it is raining." This sentence is non-sensical through the very fact that we rely heavily on the pronoun "it", the necessity of inserting a personage into the sentence as the perpetrator of the phenomena of the rain makes the sentence flawed. Who is it that is doing the raining? Who is this it?


In Italian the sentence would be "sta piovendo" or simply "piove." In the Italian example, the verb, "to stay", conjugated to the present tense form is used. In some ways this is similar to the English phantom of the "it", seeing as "sta" is the same form one would use to discuss an action caused by another person of either gender. Yet, with Italian being a null-subject language, meaning the presence of a pronoun is not essential to make a sentence functional, so at least the pronoun "it" doesn't have to make an appearance and we can say bye, bye phantom causer/bringer of the rain to at least some degree. Another example would be that in the Italian language, the coldness of the weather is an action being done, whereas in English it is a state of being. "It is cold" in italian is "fa freddo," "fa" coming from the verb "fare," to do.


It fact, if we look at the trend, null-subject or pro-drop languages, those which do not require the presence of the subject to make the sentence sensical, are by far the more common, making French, German and English and our dear phantom pronouns, the exception, rather than the rule. And how on earth would I have discovered such a thing if I hadn't dabbled in bilingualism and discovered with shock and horror and intrigue the way in which my own language was influencing my concept of the world around me?


The dead languages and the school curriculum is a topic which I'm sure many an Oxford don has become red faced over, the argument being put forward by ageing school boys that training in the art of the dead languages is equivalent to training in character and rationality, that understanding of the English language will be enriched and fortified. I learnt a bit of Latin as a teenager and I must say that the knowledge did give me something other than a pointless sense of superiority to be able to wander the streets of my humdrum Essex hometown citing the conjugation of the latin word for love in my head. An understanding of the origins of the word perambulate may seen flouncy and pointless, but actually it gave me some understanding that the sounds I was making to communicate meaning were tied up in their own long drawn-out history of associations. I did in fact buy a little book from Waterstones a while back, which despite its compact size, claimed to teach you as much as a school boy's Latin Primer. However, I never got past the first half of the book, where the writer engaged not so much in teaching you the actually language, but in yelling about the beauteous virtues of the language. According to him, understanding in Latin can cure all alms and is a miraculous recipe for turning oneself once and for all into the ultimate ideal supermensch, improving all areas of your life, morally, intellectually, sexually (okay, maybe it doesn't go that far).


However, the reason an understanding of Latin is enriching is for the exact same purpose that an understanding of any second language is enriching. Read Ovid in Latin if that's your thing, although just as valuable is to peruse the horizon and express your contentment in the language of that place on some Spanish hilltop town.


Language, a complex tool to aid human communication, sets us apart from the other animals around us. But I think it is important not to get stuck inside our structures. The differences in languages are stunning. There are more names for colours in Italian than English. Perhaps we can link this to the amount of light in Italy and the sense of wonder it gives you to look at the colours of the world around you in that light. If England was a colour, it would be grey, we limited our names of the colours in direct relation to our environment and the colours on offer to us. At least, that's a theory. All languages contain their flaws and their strengths and I do not believe that acquiring a second language clears any erroneous methods of thinking, that's work for you to do on your own. What it does do is show the relativity of the language you're thinking in. You see it as the tool, not the craftsman and consequentially you're freed forever from believing in the language of the angels or that reality around you is being shaped in direct correspondence with the language of your thoughts.


Danielle is a British freelance writer based in the eternal city of Rome,
Danielle's blog:
Raw Riots

Danielle United Kingdom


Sorry, you must sign in to leave a comment

Forgot your password? | Join us it's free

the international voice