Thought(s), language(s), expression(s): Some thoughts

Let me tell this off the start that it is completely an unscientific thought, hence filed under mindless musing! But something that has been niggling me (well, my mind) for a while.

When I was in Vancouver, I hardly used any other language but English when I spoke, read or wrote. I had to either call home (Nepal) or Nepali friends in England (I knew very few Nepalis in Canada) to have a decent conversation in Nepali. That was when I first felt some change in my thought process. I don’t know much about the relation of language and thought process (haven’t tried to do bit more research on this now as I have too many other things on my plate!), but I think language does have some effect on how we think.

To “think” itself, I guess, we don’t need language that we communicate in, like Nepali or English or French or whatever (I could be completely wrong here, but this is my perception!). We need language to decipher, articulate, and express/communicate our thoughts; but NOT to “think” per se. Although, I believe our language (which is often tied to a certain culture, world-view etc) affects how we perceive things around us, our world view, and how we “think”.

Every person is different and hence thinks differently. However, there must be certain commonalities on how Nepalis think when compared to how Brits think. Its not just about language though – its also about culture, tradition, way of life and all that, which I’m not going to talk about here.

My topic of concern here is whether a change in your “language habit” alters the way you think. My mother tongue is Nepali, but I have made English my first language for nearly a decade now. In my opinion, when your mother tongue is different from the language you use in daily life, it poses some difficulty, not only in communication but also in logical thinking, or to put it correctly, in articulating and expressing your thoughts.

You have two options when it comes to articulating your thoughts – first, and the default option, is to articulate in your mother tongue and then translate internally (and instantaneously), and express using the language that you are communicating in, English in my case. And this process is what I used during my early years in England, when I had just arrived from Nepal and had very little practice of spoken English.

It was also during these early days that I was speaking perfect English – grammatically that is. And my “English” friends used to poke fun at me for being “too formal” and for speaking “upper class English”, and basically not speaking as they did, using slangs and twisting the language this way and that to their comfort. Of course all that changed as time passed, and my spoken English changed from being grammatically correct to being communicable, with comfort!

General communication, I don’t have problem with as I have been using English as my first language for nearly a decade now. But when it comes to articulating my thoughts, especially logical thoughts, then the limitations in your language skills get exposed.

Sometimes you feel you are in the middle of nowhere as you cannot find the word/expression you are looking for – not in your (acquired) first language because you don’t have a large enough vocabulary, and neither in your mother tongue because you just haven’t used it for too long (and even if you did, finding a lot of academic/technical words is difficult because there aren’t any in your language!). This Nepali proverb sums up how it really feels like during those moments:

धोबीको कुकुर, न घरको न घाटको (Literal translation/meaning: Washer-man’s dog neither belongs to home nor to the waterside)

(Same could be said about the cultural identity after you live in a different culture than you were born and brought up in for a long time. But I leave that for some other time!)

Nevertheless, you have to try to make most of what you have, which means trying to express the same thing in a long, roundabout way using the vocabulary that you DO have. Sometimes, you are not able to put forth your views as clearly as you had wished, but that’s the limitation you have to live with.

Now, what happens when your primary language for articulating your thoughts changes from your mother tongue to your (acquired) first language? This is the second option you have in terms of articulating your thoughts – directly in your (acquired) first language, and NOT in your mother tongue. I witnessed this happening to me, especially during my days in Canada. First thing I noticed was that I was a lot more confident using English, while communicating. I knew exactly what I was thinking (well, at least in the language that I was articulating my thoughts in!) and I didn’t have to worry about translation going horribly wrong! I felt I was expressing what I was thinking and not some “translated” thoughts.

Articulating your (logical) thoughts in the language that you (have to) communicate in makes it easier to put forth your views coherently. At least that’s what I have found in my case. I have no idea of the scientific research in this issue (haven’t tried to find out either!), but I’m sure there must be some (or a lot) research going on in this issue. Actually, this is also one of the reason why I was thinking about विचार विज्ञान (Science of Thought) the other day. Although, I don’t think that book deals with the relation between thought process and your language (I might be wrong here though, as I read that book more than 10 years ago!).

I still remember the strangeness I felt when I had a dream few years ago, where I saw myself speaking in English, even with my Nepali friends. That was when I started thinking about language and thought process, i.e., how our language affects how we think? Nowadays when I articulate my thoughts, the default language is English. In this reversed situation (than what I had when I first came to England), I have problem when I am writing in Nepali. I know what to write, in English. However, since I want to express my thoughts in Nepali, I have to translate those thoughts, articulated in English, into Nepali first before I can type them up. This is when I have difficulty finding the right words in Nepali that can express what I am thinking/feeling. Hence the presence of a lot of English words, even in my Nepali posts in this blog!

Well, thats all I have to “communicate” to you about my “thoughts” on language and thought process, “articulated” and “expressed” in English! šŸ™‚