The Psychology of Language

“Et toi? Comment ça va?” Caroline says.


And you? How are you?


This is how French class starts nearly every day at U-32.


“Je suis fatigue. Je suis fatigue. Moi aussi.”


We can all say how we are usually feeling.


Tired. This is a simple translation.


Je       Suis         Fatigue.

   I           to be           tired

   (present tense “I”)


For some people, this will be as far as they ever get in a foreign language. But learning another language isn’t just about translating one word to another.

Laure Angel, who taught middle school social studies on the Porthos team, grew up in France and moved to the United States as a teenager.

“I feel that there is a depth of emotion that I can only truly access in French or express in French,” she said. “when I write in my diary I switch back and forth and there’s certain topics and struggles that I use French for.”

While most students see world language as simply a graduation requirement and a class colleges like to see, learning a second language physically changes your brain and the way you think.

A 2014 study at Penn State studied English speakers learning Mandarin and compared their brain development with a control group. They found the brains of those who studied Mandarin built more and stronger pathways between parts of the brain making their brain processes faster and more interconnected.

The study also showed growth in the density of grey matter in the brain which is responsible for processing information, and the strengthening of white matter which helps signals to travel faster down the axons in the brain.

In psychology, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that your language informs the way you see the world, in your beliefs, values and perceptions. Studies have shown that language affects what colors we see, how we describe objects, if you have a greater chance of having perfect pitch or a great sense of direction. The latter benefits come from cultures very different from our own.

At U-32, students have the option of taking French or Spanish. While these languages will not allow us to see a new color or always know what direction we are facing, they help us reach more holistic goals.

“It makes you more compassionate and aware of the culture and of difference […] because language has all of those layers right in the vocabulary” says high school Spanish teacher Sarah Volinsky. She explained her approach to teaching Spanish as teaching cultural perspective, because especially in Vermont, the Spanish culture is “more interesting and motivating” to students who often have very little experience with other cultures.

For Gillian, the Spanish teacher in the middle school, language can define personality and identity.

“One of the things I love about being bilingual is that I have this other persona. Because when you’re in Spanish you’re acting, you’re delivering, your hand gestures, everything is sort of altered.”

Gillian spent years abroad in high school and in college and has two master degrees in language.

“The Spanish women! You have no idea– so animated and intense– how amazing they are,” she says. “The way that they deliver language […] it was unbelievable, like being on stage all the time,” she says.

Laure also commented on language informing identity:

“There’s an expression in French which literally means, my ass is between two chairs. And it literally means when you’re between two places you can’t really find your place. I feel like moving here and learning to speak rather well almost created this weird chasm in my identity […] not until I came to Vermont could I make a home. I really felt torn between two places.”

Even if you never go to France, Spain, or anywhere outside of Vermont, the languages you speak shape your brain, how you see yourself and how you see the world.

“Now I don’t know if I speak in French or in English,” says Caroline, “I think the idea of what I want to say is formed, but how it comes out depends on where I am.”

The thought is there, but how it comes out, how it is expressed, that is language.





For Discussion

Think about words in English and their translations into the language you are learning in class. Which do you like better? Do you think that one language describes the essence of a word better than in the other language?


What do you think about gendered languages?

Does learning about gendered nouns in other languages make you think about an object or idea differently?

Compare an aspect of your first language with the language you are learning now. How does this new language challenge the way you perceive things in your first language?

For example, French uses the tense of imperfect to describe things that used to happen that is different from the past tense, which describes things that happened. Why do you think they have this tense?

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