Learn a Language, Gain a Culture: a Study of German and English
Table of Contents
For those linguists out there, we would like to pose you a question. Does a language sound the way it does because of the culture in which it is spoken, or has the language shaped the culture?
According to a recent Independent article, your view of the world changes depending on what language you speak. Following a series of experiments with German-English bilinguals, it became clear that the focus of a speaker was distinctly different when speaking either language. But is it the range of language available that shapes that focus, or is it rooted in the culture itself?
The English language has a rich heritage from which it takes its words, and in return many languages adopt current English ‘loanwords’ – take email and wifi for example. For those language lovers out there who despise the way these words are replacing those in your language, perhaps think of it like this: we are merely returning your words to you in a roundabout way. According to a video by GeoBeats news, whilst English is made up of a multitude of words from multiple language sources, it is also the most borrowed from language throughout the world:
One of the most influential roots of the English language is Germanic, and therefore it is interesting to compare and contrast English with German. The German language is thought to date back to around the 6th century and itself has roots in Old Saxon.
According to nationsonline.org, English is spoken as a first language by 341 million and as a second by 508 million people around the world, and is the official language in 7 countries. German is the official language in five countries, with 121 million using it as their first language and 128 million using it as their second.
Owing to the diversity of the English language across the globe it is difficult to define specific characteristics. There are a number of varieties of English, from African American to Zimbabwean. Even in terms of the more ‘simple’ aspects of a language such as the accent there is a spectrum:
It is surprising how much variety there can be in such a small geographical space, as seen in this video on the accents from the British Isles. The diversity of the English language allows it to span widely across the world, and has led to the belief amongst some that English is the one true ‘global’ language.
Like English, German is a West Germanic language, and, like English, there is diversity in its dialects overseas, from Amana to Texas German. Within Germany itself, people speak a variation of either ‘low’ or ‘high’ German (Hochdeutsch), depending on where they live. At times is seems that German is a very independent language when compared with its European neighbours: words that are similar sounding in a number of countries often sound very different in German, as demonstrated in this video:
One interesting thing to consider when debating whether a language shapes a culture or vice versa is that German has no continuous tense. Surely this must have an impact on changing the focus of the language being spoken. Referring back to the Independent article, German is said to have a ‘holistic’ overview because it describes both an action and a goal, but perhaps this is purely because it doesn’t have a tense with which to say what is happening in the here and now.
To investigate the chicken and egg conundrum of whether a language sounds the way it does because of its culture or if the culture is shaped by the language, let’s look at some examples:
Bilingual speakers tend to switch the language that they use, especially when talking to children, in order to express themselves more emotively. According to big think, native Finnish speakers are more likely to express their love for their children in English since Finnish is not an emotionally explicit language.
Applying this to our German-English bilingual speakers, is it then fair to assume that the stereotypically humourless German would suddenly effuse all manner of emotive pleasantries if they were to switch to English? Or that the stiff upper-lipped English speaker who would normally avoid complaints or mask them in sarcasm would concisely get to the point if they switched to German? If English speakers are naturally inclined to find it difficult to express their emotions, what does that say about the concise, punctual, disciplined German attempting to do (or not do) the same?
Emotion ties in nicely to the expressive nature of language, and for the writer in us all, wouldn’t it be wonderful to automatically switch language to use the best, most expressive language available to us without considering our readers pouring over Google Translate to understand what we are trying to say? Perhaps it is a natural bias to think that your own language is the most expressive way to get your point across, and the debate rages on over at antimoon about that very point.
Germans are known for being traditional, organised, and self deprecating when it comes to stereotypical jokes about their own sense of comedy. The English too are thought to be traditional and able to laugh at themselves, so perhaps both languages are equal when it comes to expressiveness. English does have the ability to smirk at this and mumble ‘Shakespeare’ if it wants to win the argument, although German might issue the trump card of Goethe as a counter-attack. It is a difficult argument to win.
Practical Language Application
What about the practical use of language? Surely a nation that is known for its organisation, punctuality and efficiency would have a language to match, and therefore a bilingual speaker would choose German over English when practicality was necessary? England, a nation of people who never like to complain officially but love to moan, and even more to not say exactly what we mean? According to an article by the University Of Chicago, not necessarily.
In experiments about risk-taking in native and non-native languages, their research found that participants were more willing to take risks in their non-native tongue, as there was no ‘emotional’ attachment to the language – they were distancing themselves from the problem and therefore much more likely to take a risk. It seems here that a bilingual speaker would therefore not seek out their more ‘practical’ language but choose the language depending on the task at hand: risk-taking would merit the second language, more emotive situations, the first.
Benefits Of Bilingualism
A bilingual person uses their two languages to best effect depending on the situation, and there are apparently other benefits too. It seems that cognitive abilities are vastly improved with bilingualism, and in an article published on alzheimers.net, research at the University Of Ghent has demonstrated that the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer's may be delayed by up to four years. Learning languages is good for your health!
The Question, However, Is Which Came First?
So what can we conclude from these findings? Does the language shape the culture or the culture mould the language? It seems like the answer is both. Bilingual speakers often report feeling that they are a different person when they converse in their second language, and working within the constraints of that language must contribute to that.
If you can only talk in certain tenses or your subject word order is strictly defined, this sets a precedent for how you will explain yourself. This in turn is a shaping of culture. Thinking back to the example in the original Independent article, when describing a video of a woman walking, the German speaker took a holistic approach of describing the action and the goal of the action, whereas the English speaker would use the continuous tense to describe what was happening in that very moment. German speakers seem to see the ‘bigger picture’ whilst English speakers sum up what is happening in the moment.
Learn A Language, Gain A Culture
Learning a language is therefore not just about acquiring a new skill for work or a fun way to see the world. Learning a language opens up entire new cultures to you from the simple manner of learning to speak and think in a new way. Taking on a new language means taking on a new outlook, and to see the world through new eyes like this is an opportunity not to be missed.
If this has piqued your interest and you’d like to learn a new language (and culture!), why don’t you contact us to see what amazing new things are out there for you to discover?