Communication is nearly impossible without language, and communication is what makes change and development possible in human society. Body language can only get us so far. Different languages give us unique modes of thinking and expression. Some concepts are not familiar for everyone because they do not exist in their language. Mostly, facial expressions and emotions are universal among people, but it is hard to imagine a concept that does not have a word for it in your mother tongue. There are a lot of untranslatable words from different languages that English has now started using, since it lacks some of the concepts known to other languages (wanderlust or schadenfreude from German, for example). Or, I could recommend reading Milan Kundera talking about the differences in meaning and understanding of the equivalences for “compassion” in various languages – Mitgefühl in German and kaastunne in Estonian – in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
As someone who studied language and linguistics, the differences in our world view arising from speaking another language does not cease to amaze me. As an international individual, getting familiar with various languages has given me access to so many interesting concepts I could not know existed, and I have understood that not all people can make a difference between, or produce, certain sounds (for example, a lot of Spanish speakers do not differentiate between V and B sounds). Some languages do not have grammatical gender, which is surprising to most Indo-European language speakers; some languages have insane amount of inflections, which is different from languages that rather build their sentences with articles and prepositions, instead of changing the ending of the word to indicate movement, change, possession, etc. (both factors about the Estonian and Finnish language).
My mother tongue is Estonian, which is a Finno-Ugric language, sharing the same language tree with Finnish and Hungarian. It is separate from the big Indo-European language tree, even though throughout the history of our country, multiple occupations have influenced our vocabulary, since a lot of words and phrases are similar to Russian and German vocabulary. There are around 1 million Estonian speakers, which makes this language quite special (among other small languages), since barely anyone around the world has had any contact to it. This specialness is not always a positive thing when trying to remember new words in Indo-European languages that have absolutely no possible associations or connotations similar to my mother tongue.
It is, however, quite an interesting experience speaking such a small language, and this collective experience, like knowing something weird that others do not, leaves me often amazed. Because I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a big country with a language that has a lot of speakers and a lot of people interested in learning it. Our films are not dubbed; we mostly use subtitles, which is also beneficial for our English skills. The market for Estonian books is not that profitable, since there are not enough clients. When I speak my language in front of foreigners, no one has heard anything like it (unless they have been around Finnish people). So, I will continue sharing facts about my small language and ask everyone else to sometimes give thought to these interesting peculiarities or various personalities that the experience of knowing different languages gives us.
By Jaanika Malla