Let’s start off with a sentence such as ,,I saw my grandmother reading a book ’’ to examine how one simple phrase can vastly differ from language to language. If you were to say this line in Russian, the verb would change depending if I, who saw the grandmother, am a male or a female. In addition, a different verb is used, depending if the action is completed or not(finished the book from cover to cover or just read a few pages). In Chinese it should be specified if the grandmother is maternal or paternal.
Lastly, in English, the verb has to be marked for tense (saw instead of see), whereas in Indonesian, it is not required. What is more, studies have shown that after learning a new language, people often change the way they speak their native tongue, based on that other language they learnt. As mentioned before, it is not necessary to use grammatical tenses in Indonesian, it is optional, but in English it is required. Oftentimes, Indonesians, who have learnt English, start putting more information regarding to tense in their language.
Knowing, that one simple sentence can have so many variations, it is not surprising, how many misunderstandings can happen, since some thoughts are bound to get lost in translation.
To continue with something that English lacks, but so many other languages couldn’t exist without - grammatical genders. Can having gendered nouns really affect our thought process? In a study, conducted for Spanish speaking children, they were asked to give voices to everyday objects such as: a door, a fork, a pencil etc. So for example a door, which in Spanish has a feminine gender, would have a girly voice. Even from a very young age, these kids would choose voices depending on the grammatical gender of those objects in their language. It seems as if people, who speak languages, which have grammatical genders, do take meaning from it.
Another example of it would be describing objects. A simple word, such as sun, is feminine in German, but masculine in Greek. If a German speaker were to be asked to describe the sun, most likely, they would choose adjectives, such as: beautiful, magnificent, bright - stereotypically more feminine words and if the same were to be asked a Greek speaker, the answers would probably be: big, calm, strong - stereotypically more masculine words.
In addition, this noun class is even making its way into the physical world, for example, Statue of Liberty, why is Liberty a lady? Perhaps because it was a gift from France and in French, liberty happens to be a feminine word. These are a few of many examples, that show how grammatical genders affect how people think without even realizing.
Perhaps languages can vary from each other so vastly because they serve different purposes. A cognitive scientist, Lera Boroditsky has previously mentioned in one of her TED-talks some interesting facts and ideas that support that hypothesis. If you had a room full of highly educated people and would ask them to point where southeast is, most likely, every possible direction would be represented. But there are some places and tribes, Kuuk Thaayorre for example, where asking that same question would result in immediate correct answer from everyone, even very young children. That’s because these cultures do not use words like left and right, they use cardinal directions instead (north, south, east, west). For example ,,I hurt my western leg’’ or ,, my dog is in the northeast of that tree’’ And even the way they say hello would be to ask ,,which way are you going’’ and the answer would be ,,i’m going southwest in the far distance, and you?’’ So in their culture, every passing person you greet, you have to report your direction. It makes sense that Kuuk Thaayorre people are so good with directions, because if they weren't, they literally couldn’t get past hello, if they did not know which way they were headed. It is likely, that in such cultures, survival can depend on being well-oriented so much, that it even made its way into their language.
All in all, it can be said that different languages require different things from their speakers and in many cases, have evolved according to the needs of their culture. Not only that but sometimes speakers thought process can alter depending on the language they speak, resulting in seeing and understanding the world from another perspective.
Margarita is an estonian volunteer in Praxis organisation involved in the world mother language day.