We asked Daniele Monticelli, Professor of Italian Studies and Semiotics at the Tallinn University School of Humanities whether our mother tongue affects our intellectual capacity and worldviews. Here’s what he had to say.
The short answer is definitely no. Our intelligence is not connected to whether we speak English, Estonian or Hindi, but rather to our level of education, environment and how broad our horizons are.
There is, however, an ongoing debate over whether our mother tongue influences our worldviews. The philosophy that connects our worldview with our mother tongue is called linguistic relativism. Its predecessors are the German thinkers Johann Gottfried Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt from the 18th and 19th centuries, who turned our attention to the fact that thoughts take shape only when we express them with words. Thus, our language determines how we see the world.
In the 20th century, linguistic relativism has been developed by American ethnologists and linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who coined the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”. A radical take on this hypothesis claims that language has a key role in shaping our thoughts, and thus even our actions.
A more temperate take on the hypothesis claims that language is only partly responsible for shaping our worldview, and definitely not decisive. In addition, linguistic relativists do not focus on the vocabulary, but rather on the language structures, and not on single languages, but language groups. The most famous linguistic relativist Uku Masing compared Finno-Ugric languages to Indo-Germanic languages to figure out the differences in thought patterns of Finno-Ugric peoples.
Even though linguistic relativism has highlighted the importance of the difference between the mother tongue and other languages in viewing the world, this philosophy (and especially the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has received strong arguments. Firstly, our worldviews and actions are influenced by many other factors, such as social norms and emotions.
Secondly, translingual communication, or translation, proves that our mother tongues do not set limits to our thoughts. We are not prisoners, but are free to move between different languages, become efficient in foreign languages, and adapt to new cultures. Thirdly, even multilingual people have a consistent worldview, despite the variation in the languages they spoke as children.
In conclusion, it is safe to say our worldviews are not singularly determined by our mother tongues. Our view of the world is created by many factors, but becomes clear and concise only when we start expressing it via a language or another sign system.
Daniele Monticelli has researched translation and its role in cultural change.
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