Does Language Affect The Way We Think? My Experience as a Bilingual Japanese-English Speaker

I can confirm as a Japanese speaker that the differences seen in frequency of vocabulary, as well as unique words that don’t translate across multiple languages are enough by themselves to significantly alter one’s way of thinking when speaking another language.

That being said, in my experience, this change is mostly limited to when you are speaking a chosen language. More specifically, I don’t feel that knowing Japanese has affected my English personality to the extent that knowing Japanese has allowed me to create an entirely different alter-ego version of my personality that I can switch on and off at-will. For this reason, in my explanations below I liken knowing another language to having the ability to switch between different lenses. This is one of the reasons for code switching. I will go into code switching more deeply below. First, let me touch onto one of the most important concepts for decoding whether language affects the way we think or not; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

What is the Sapir Whorf hypothesis?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the theory of linguistic relativity, is the theory that the language we speak influences our cognitive functions, and thus the way that we think. In essence, it is the idea that our view of the world is relative to the languages our mind has been trained to use.

In this way, one can think of the language that they speak as a lens upon which light filters through, allowing us to see only what we have been granted the capability to see. Something I will point out is that the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is a theory that is mostly arguing for the cognitive influence of one’s native language, and not any new languages that one learns in their lifetime. That being said, The Sapir Whorf hypothesis was formulated in the early 20th century, well before the rise of globalism and multiculturalism. Tackling the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the field of developmental linguistics is nearly akin to tackling the meaning behind life itself from the point of view of the philosopher. It is a topic so ethereal, most people don’t even bother tackling the topic. Thus, there has been little progress in the last 100 years to either challenge or defend the concept. Despite all of our technology, the intricacies of the brain still remain a mystery to a large extent, although there have been many social-experiments and small advancements in favor of linguistic relativity as an idea.

Japanese is a noun-centric language, while English is a verb-centric language

Look at the picture above. How would you describe it? What would you focus on? In Japanese, people would say that this is scene is komorebi. In English, perhaps we would say that the ‘light is passing through the trees in a beautiful way’, or something along those lines. I know that the term god rays has been circulating recently. Maybe most English speakers wouldn’t even notice the light. Perhaps you described the trees, or the path, or the people. In essence, English speakers may generally tend to focus on the action of our surroundings, while Japanese speakers tend to qualify the entire overall experience around them. This bias of categorization is at the heart of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Language affects the way we quantify and qualify our words. It affects the words that pop into our heads first, which in-turn affects the kinds of conversations we gravitate to as a culture, and as a form of bias. From a certain point of view, it may be the ultimate example of a butterfly effect. Japanese having a word like komorebi lead to komorebi becoming a more common element of Japanese folklore and storytelling, which further perpetuated the cycle. Perhaps you can think of it as a positive version of confirmation bias.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t any negatives to this phenomenon. Tribalism and a closed-mind are much more common symptoms of the monolinguist.

This cognitive-language that exists as a result of the language we speak, and predominately our native language, can perhaps better be illustrated through the example below.

What word would you use to describe the speed between jogging and running? Observing the words I have inserted above, jog and run, we can see that these are speed qualifiers. When somebody says the word ‘jog’, both a sense of speed and the image of an activity may pop into your head. These words carry a deeply-engrained nuance in their usage.

Now, what if I asked you, what is the difference between ‘jogging’, and ‘running’? Without consulting a dictionary, would you be able the difference of jogging without using the slower walk, or the faster run qualifiers? It would be challenging to say the least. Furthermore, imagine if there was a speed of movement that suddenly became the standard for all English speakers. Let’s say, a word that indicated a speed somewhere in-between walking and speed-walking. Now let’s say hypothetically that this speed became the new norm, to the point where NOT having a concept for this new idea would be strange. This is one way culture’s have come to be shaped around language.

What is code-switching?

Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages rapidly within a conversation, often in an attempt to achieve a more specific nuance or added meaning that can not be achieved by only speaking one one language.

Code-switching is way more common than you may think if you are used to living in an environment where one primary language is spoken. Within any given conversation I have with foreigners in Japanese, even if we are primarily speaking English, I know that I personally will throw in tons of Japanese vocabulary to help enforce the nuance of EXACTLY what I’m talking about. Code-switching, or the process of switching between two languages, often within the same sentence, provides the speaker with an added plethora of ammunition from which to draw from when constructing sentences. It helps provide context, and is a fantastic way to strengthen relatability from those who speak the same languages. If you learn to speak a language like Japanese, you too will begin code switching without even realizing it.

An example of how language affects the way we think; In Japanese there is no word for foot or leg

Well, this is actually not true. These words do exist. Word to be more precise, because it’s the same word… the word for leg and foot is the same (ashi 足) in Japanese. Because of this, people in Japan almost never distinguish between the two English concepts. They just don’t do it. It’s not that they can’t do it, but just like how we may describe the above komorebi as ‘light passing through trees in a pleasant way’ or something similar, in Japanese they would have to locate ‘this part of the ashi’, as in ‘this part of the bottom half of your body’. There are words for kneecap ( Hiza 膝 ) ankle (ashikubi 足首), and butt (Oshiri お尻), but there’s simply no way to differentiate between legs and feet like we do in English. Judging from how that information may challenge your perception of human anatomy and general communication, you can see how it may seem strange to a Japanese person that there is no English word for komorebi. You may be turning your nose up at this comparison. “Well, that’s not the same! The concept of a foot is much more important than the concept of some god-rays passing through the trees!” you may be saying to yourself. Honestly, with the number of songs and poems that contain the word komorebi in Japanese, it might be a closer competition than you may think. Komorebi may be used in media so often because of the fact that komorebi exists as a word and concept. Or, perhaps komorebi became to be used as a word and concept because it was such an integral part of Japanese art and culture. It is difficult to work this out, and is a constant topic of both developmental linguistics and societal linguistics.

How does language affect our society?

This is all conjecture, but perhaps the concepts most central to a civilization become core principles to a point of no-longer being definable in a truly objective way. I believe this can be seen in both the Japanese word enryo (very difficult to translate, but I will call it restraint, 遠慮 in kanji), which I have written about in the article below as well.

What does the Japanese word Enryo mean?

The Japanese word for enryo can perhaps be translated best into English as restraint or hesitation. More specifically, restraint is the sense of one sacrificing something they want for the overall harmony and well-being of the group. It is often used to describe a state of mind, rather than only as a verb.

This is one of the core elements of Japanese culture, so you should memorize the word enryo. You see this concept everywhere in Japan. People will often have grand unspoken battles with one-another to show their sense of enryo and willingness to sacrifice their own well-being for the group. I think that this is one of the reason why excessive overtime and undiagnosed depression runs rampant throughout Japanese society. This may also be one of the reasons why Japanese people are so characteristically diligent and punctual. It is a blessing and a curse. As a concept and word, enryo is so prevalent in Japanese society that to try and define it outside of the concept of Japanese society would be nearly impossible. Based on my years in Japan, I would make the personal argument that enryo is perhaps the central concept one must experience firsthand to begin to get a deeper understanding for the core of Japanese culture.

How has being bilingual affected my life?

Jam night at Chicago Rock in Osaka. You should check it out if you’re into blues music! It was a great time.

I certainly notice the time it takes to shift mentally from one language to another. The mindset of Japanese may linger in my brain for 30 minutes at an hour after I switch to speaking English. I did notice the time required to make this shift getting shorter as my proficiency in Japanese increased.

There really is no way to describe how knowing another language that is in a completely different linguistic group than your native language impacts your life. It can be truly inspiring, and eye-opening, as you realize the number of different perspectives that exist in this world. It can be exciting, and can push you to ask more questions of yourself and the world around you. And, it can also be lonely, especially if you don’t know anybody else who has had a similar journey to you. In Japan, despite having a bigger population of foreign expats than ever, foreign residents in Japan still make up only 2% of the population. Of that 2%, native English speakers still make up well under 1% of nationwide demographics. Japan has a pretty difficult barrier of entry as well, and a notoriously high turn-over rate, with the majority of foreign residents going home after just 2 to 3 years. Of the less than 1% of native English speakers in Japan, the percentage of those that speak Japanese fluently is even lower (maybe much lower), meaning that there are maybe around 500,000 people who I can make bad Japanglish dad jokes to in Japan. It’s… not enough. I need more Japanese dad-joke time! As of 2021, there are around 50,000 American citizens residing in Japan.

Really though, it can be awesome, but like many things in Japan, being a bilingual expat here can also be lonely. Not knowing many others with my specific experiences or background can be a somewhat isolating but fascinating thing. I couldn’t recommend it to everyone, but I’m creating a whole website around it, so obviously I’m enjoying it!

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Other resources

If you are interested in learning Japanese, or hearing more of my perspective on language learning and Japanese culture, why don’t you check out the articles below? I will send you inaudible and very indirect love if you click on one of my other articles below! (wink)

If you are interested in trying out learning Japanese yourself…

If you want to learn more about Japanese culture and some additional linguistic concepts unique to Japan…

If you want to learn a bit about the history of Japanese, and why Japanese books are written from right-to-left…

2 comments On Does Language Affect The Way We Think? My Experience as a Bilingual Japanese-English Speaker

  • wonderful read! thank you very much for taking the time to write about this concept. being a bilingual myself (although not of japanese and english), i can relate to a lot to how you feel. especially the switching back and forth between the languages in thoughts, and how lonely it can be sometimes not knowing anyone who share similar experiences. although my native language is not english, i’ve grown into a habit of thinking in english subconsciously, this has created certain ‘gap’ in my perception about my surroundings and the world with people around me. for a long time i wondered what the root cause of such difference was until recently it came to my attention that it’s the language. and like you said a very awesome feeling to be able to ‘see’ a lot things differently but can also be very lonely indeed. i’m very interested in learning japanese and stumbled across your website. i love the depth of your observation and understanding of japanese language, making me want to learn more seriously. i’ll be visiting frequently. keep up with the great work! がんばって😄

  • Pingback: What Does Senpai Really Mean? My Experiences Working in Japan, and Some Thoughts on Why People in Japan Work so Much Overtime – Growkaru ()

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