Lately I've been thinking about the influence that a given (natural) language has over the way we communicate and think.

I speak English and Japanese, I'm a used-to-be-fluent in Portuguese, and now I know a bit of Dutch. Please note that I'm in no way a trained linguist. These are just some random observations from a polyglot, DO read this with a grain of salt.


Okay. here goes.

For me English is a much more "precise" language than, say, Japanese. I think that part of this is that even when you want to express ambiguity, you need to explicitly use modal verbs to indicate as such. Dutch shares the same linguistic characteristic here -- which is no surprise as both are derived from Germanic languages.

What this means is that when you are talking about subject matter that involves for example, specifications and protocols, it's much clearer. I feel much more comfortable writing technical stuff in English, because I can say /exactly/ what I want to say.

This is just about the language itself, but I believe that such characteristics also influence how the actual communication is constructed. When I'm writing in English, I feel like I have to qualify what I am trying to communicate, much more so than in Japanese. I believe such influences in the actual manner of communication also makes English much better suited for negotiations and discussions between different parties with different expectations. At least I end up being more explicit in my proposals, as well as in denail or acceptance of what I am given.

Japanese is really different in this regard, because it allows you to omit/drop a lot of information from the setences you construct, leaving the receiving end to figure out the implied meaning from the context.

In fact, I believe that Japanese sentences tend to sound better when the leading sentences set the context correctly, and the right amount of words are dropped to rely on the implied tone. I think that when you are more explicit in Japanese, the resulting sentence tend to be too verbose and/or redandunt.

This combined with the use of Kanji makes for a /way/ more compact language -- which is great for stuff like Twitter. 140 character? No problem! You could almost write an entire diary in one tweet.

The extensive use of implied context is also great for communication between close parties. I definitely like talking to my wife in Japanese. Obviously, I've never married anybody else so I can't quite compare, but I occasionally imagine what I would say to my wife in a different language (and I sometimes actually /do/ blurt out English to her), it feels a bit odd. For example, I definitely don't want to argue with her in English because I will have to sepnd so much more effort in constructing a coherent set of sentences than in Japanese.

However, this does have problems. As noted in the section about strength of English above, the need to be explicit allows for better understanding during discussions between different parties. In Japanese, which rely heavily on what is not being said at the moment, you are never sure what /exactly/ was the results/terms that were agreed upon.

This is not to say that it is impossible to be explicit in Japanese. You just have to make an effort to make it so. Therefore if you are not careful, you end up with a vague sense of consensus, and what you might not get what you are expecting.

I personally don't use Portuguese much: I used to be fluent, but after age 8 I forgot the language once, and I had to relearn it. I never really used it to carry a long conversation, so I can't quite make the same sort of comparison as Japanese and English above. However, I do find that the Portuguese language has one really really unique characteristic: It flows so naturally in a piece of poetry or a lyric.

Few attributes of the language that I think contribute to this are:

1) The pronouciation of consonants

I think the pronounciation of consonants in Portuguese are "rounder" than other langeus. I believe what I'm referring here is known as "plosives" (go look it up :) -- I think there are less plosives in Portuguese than, say, English or Dutch.

2) The usage of vowels

In general, I think Portuguese words are constructed such that they end up being relatively easy to form rhymes, and form them without sounding silly (by "silly", I mean something like a really bad rap lyric).

3) Dimunitives

Dimunitives exist in many (maybe most) languages, but I think they sound rather silly in most situations. Portuguese dimunitives, I think, tend to infer fondness from the speaker rather than a sense of belittling. I believe this is a trait in the Latin language family, but I'm not sure.

When I think of Brazilian poetry I always think of Vinicius de Moraes. His broad range of subject and the ease with which he switches the choice of words to fit the context never ceses to amaze me. I think his works are one of the best in the language.

But even in spoken Portuguese, I hear a sense of rhythm that resembles poetry. Maybe that's where people from places of heavy Latin influence get their rhythm...

So what is it that I wanted to write about?

Well, I wanted to kind of dump what I've been thinking about languages. That they are not just grammer and vocabulary -- they actually directly affects how one might act, they affect the very basis of their view of the world, and in turn it affects how a group of people who share the same language may act.

I definitely /think/ differently when I'm using English. I say stuff that I would never say in Japanese. Conversely, I would never be verbose like this text I'm writing right now in Japanese. Heck, I'm writing this in English precisely because I thought I wouldn't be able to express what I wanted to say correctly in Japanese.

Next time you learn a language, it might be interesting to think about more than the actual language itself, but also ponder about the culture and stereotypical characteristics of the people using that language.