I guess I am the right person to ask that question of because I have learned to speak several languages. I can say that categorically, speaking other languages changes your thinking. It changes your perspective on the world. If it were just changing words, it wouldn’t, but when you learn to speak another language, to function in that language, you have to learn another way of thinking, another culture if you are going to get along in that language. You begin to see more and more possibilities in the world with the more language you learn to speak. You become broader than people who only speak one or even who only speak two languages. The ones who speak two language are broader than the ones who speak only one because they know how things are done in two cultures, but the ones who only speak one language seem to be extremely narrow in their thinking. They think there is only one way of doing things, but you know there are several ways of doing it. Romanians are a language people, and they have a saying, “For every language you learn to speak, you put on a different mask.” To be able to function in several languages, you have to learn to be the bigger person all the time or you will have enemies everywhere because everyone thinks their way of doing things is the only way of doing it.
If you talk to a Japanese, they think everyone needs to take their shoes off at the door. There is logic to it. In times past, there were worms in the Japanese soil, and if they went barefoot, they got those worms in their feet. If they wore their shoes n the house, those worms got in the house. They learned to be very strict about their shoes and their cleanliness. There are inside shoes and outside shoes, and never the twain shall meet. However, if you tell an average American to take his shoes off at the door, he will say, “Why? It’s not muddy outside.” He will be confused.
A cowboy has learned to wear cowboy boots because they walk through terrain that has rattle snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, ticks, and chiggers. He wears a cowboy hat because the sun is hot, and he doesn’t want a sun burn. However, if he starts telling everyone in the world they must wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat even though they are good for him, they won’t understand, and he will get rebellion.
In order to function in a Korean society, you have to know your place and learn to speak according to your station. When I first came to Korea, I had used the most polite language in Japan, and they appreciated it, so I thought using the most polite language was the right thing to do in Korea. I was wrong. When I used the most polite language, the people were confused and looked at me like I was crazy. I had to learn that professors are at the top of the social hierarchy in Korea, and that I was expected to speak like a professor. I had to learn to do it their way because to them, there is only one way. If I tried to tell everyone in other countries to speak to me the way Koreans speak to me or speak to them the way I a expected to speak in Korea, they would think I was crazy.
When Americans who don’t understand the world and want to abolish genders begin asking questions like, “Why do boys only use certain words in Japanese and girls only use certain words?” They think they are so worldly wise because they want to abolish pronouns in English that denote gender, but they are completely narrow in their thinking,. They don’t understand that you don’t go around changing other people’s cultures. They forget they are one drop in the population of America, and and even smaller drop in the English speaking world, and even a smaller drop in the configuration of the world. They feel cool for trying to make unisex clothing and bathrooms, but they are going against the whole world. Every culture out there accepts gender. They have always accepted gender since the beginning of time. They understand it is just part of life. Many languages even reflect gender. They have masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives in many, many languages. For the Japanese to think girls use one language and guys use another, it is normal. These people who want to change the world and force everyone into thinking their way are kicking at the bricks. Just like a cowboy would be if he decided to try to make the whole world wear cowboy boots.
When I was in Nigeria, the society said that women must have maids in their homes. There were no automatic washing machines. There were no dish washers or even dryers. When you cook, you have to make everything from scratch. It has always been part of the culture to have help in your home. They usually find a young girl from their family or their village to live with them and help them. I had to have a maid when I was in Nigeria because the work was just too much for me. I couldn’t take it physically, and before I got a maid, I had a miscarriage because my husband was American and just couldn’t understand how much work I had and that I couldn’t hold up physically. When that maid came along, she didn’t know how to use the toilet. She had never lived in a house with a toilet. She kept going outside, and I discovered she was using the bathroom outside. I told her to use my toilet. She wet all over the bathroom and didn’t clean it up because she didn’t know how to use a toilet. She just couldn’t seem to understand how to be clean, and I ended up having to fire her because she was just too narrow to work in my house. I should have just let her continue using the bathroom outside, but I didn’t realize there were people in the world who had never used a toilet. However, I needed a maid, so we hired another lady who had more experience working for foreigners. When we ate our meals, I wanted to invite this lady to eat with us, but it just wasn’t acceptable. Americans think everyone should be together, but if I had insisted that she eat with us, it would have just upset her. She had her place in life, and she only knew one way, and trying to force her to eat at my table would have made her so confused and uncomfortable, she may have quit her job, so I left her alone.
When you learn to speak a foreign language, yes, you must learn to think differently even about how you express yourself. In Japan, if you are too direct, you are considered rude. It is more than grammar even though to function using Japanese grammar, you have to completely order everything you think about grammar and expressing yourself differently. There are Japanese who speak English, but refuse to speak English, but go through a translator because they consider it not humble to show how much they know by speaking English. When you speak in Japanese, you have to learn to say things like, “I think” and “I suppose” because coming right out and saying it as we are taught to do in English is considered impolite.
In America, if you are not direct, people think you are wishy washy and can’t be trusted. Americans want a simple “yes” or “no,” especially if they are northerners or if you are writing a paper. If you have an education in America, if your English teacher was smart, he or she taught you that writing a paper is like writing another dialect. You can’t write a paper the way you speak to your grandmother. If you write all the cute little things you say to your grandmother on your paper, you get a bad grade. If you express yourself in an American way in Japan, you get a bad grade from the person listening. If you express yourself like a Korean in America, you get a bad grade from the person listening.
I had a very smart student who figured it out here in Korea. In Korea, if they want to seem cute, they talk like a baby on purpose. The Koreans think it is cute, but my student said she had figured out that if she did that in English, people thought she was crazy. I have a Korean friend who didn’t used to speak that way, but she got married and had a baby, and now she speaks that way, and it drives me crazy because she does it in Korean and in English. She is a thirty something year old woman who talks like a baby on purpose. Her culture tells her to do it.
It goes back to hand signals too. If you say, “Come here” in a hand signal in America, you can do it with your palm up, and no one thinks anything about it. However, if you do that in Mexico, they are insulted because to them, you are saying, “Come up to me” like you think you are better than they are. In America, if we say, “who me?” in sign language, we point to our chests, but in Japan, they point to their noses. Americans who have never seen it and see it for the first time want to laugh. In Romania, if someone has done something wrong, they put their pointing finger on the side of their face meaning, “It is a shame,” but in any other country, it means nothing.
With each language, comes a culture and a way of thinking. If you only speak one language, it means you don’t know much about the world. If you only know one culture and think your way is the only way to do things, maybe it is the way to function right in the spot where you are, but people travel now a days. People mix. We have cars. We have airplanes. We have trains and buses. People who have never learned another language have a harder time when they encounter someone who thinks differently from how they think. People who have learned to speak several languages know that everyone has a different idea, and they all think they are right, but the person who speaks several languages and has traveled understands that the world is big and there are all kinds of people, and trying to force their way doesn’t work. People who have traveled and learned to speak several languages see more possibilities. They understand and know more ways than one.
When I was in Romania, an American professor came to the university where I was teaching. Attendance isn’t required in most Romanian classes. The students can not go to class and just show up for the tests. If they make a good grade on the test, that is their grade because the point is mastering the subject. That is why the class even exists, but the American professor didn’t like the lack of attendance, so she instituted attendance in all the classes giving all the other professors attendance charts. They did it as long as she was there, but when she left, they went back to their own way. Just because she thought attendance was important didn’t mean they would too. You can’t go against culture. Here in Korea, attendance is required in the university. It is part of the grade. In Germany, they are worse about attendance than Romanians. In Romania, they must attend some classes, but only take tests in others, but in Germany, no one has to attend any class if they just pass the test. There are more ways of looking at it than one. However, just passing the test will never work in Korea. They can’t get it through their heads that students can study and learn without sitting in that chair in the room where the teacher is. Koreans think they have the smartest population int he world. Romanians think they have the smartest population in the world. Americans think they have the smartest population in the world/–They can’t all be the smartest. There is more than one way of doing things. They may have found a good way, but others have found good ways too, but people who don’t travel and only speak one language don’t truly understand this. Sometimes, you can travel, but still not understand because you are so busy looking through your rose cultured glasses called culture. It is easy not to take your glasses off if you are only bi-cultural. You can sit around and look down at the other culture thinking your way of thinking is the best. It gets a little harder, though to think like that if you have taken part in several cultures. If you don’t speak the language of the country where you are living, you can never begin to really understand the thinking of the people and the why they do what they do. You can’t get broader without the language.
If you are an employer and want things done only one way, don’t hire multi lingual people because they think. If you are an employer and want more possibilities to make money, more ideas to do things more efficiently, more ideas to make things in general better, these guys will know how. I was really disappointed when Barrack O’Bama was president. I heard his mother was American, and his dad was Kenyan, and I thought, “Good! We will have a third culture kid as president! Perhaps he can solve our problems.” A third culture kid has more than one culture, so they have seen more than one way of doing things and speaks more than one language. However, he wasn’t a third culture kid. He was only a third culture kid genetically, but not culturally. He spoke English, period. He understood being a Chicago politician, period. Even though he was mulatto, both black and white, he was only black, period. Something along the way made him very narrow, and that narrowness caused trouble in America. Perhaps it was his time in the Black Panthers. We need someone who can think broadly in the oval office, who understands more than one way of doing things. When I was in Romania, a friend of mine wrote a poem. He could speak English, Romanian, and German. He said he spent his life learning from others. He felt like a copy cat because if someone was doing something good, he borrowed it, and he incorporated it into his own life. He had three cultures to choose from because he spoke three languages. He rose to be the president of the university, and he was a very good president. He was very good at negotiating because he could see different sides to questions. People who speak more than one language can see the different sides, and if they are smart, they adopt good things into their lives. Ever since I went to Japan the first time, I have always taken my shoes off at the front door because I like not messing my floors up with dirt from outside, and I raised my kids to do the same . I also adopt things from all these different cultures that I have windows into to make my life better. Speaking other languages and understanding the cultures that go with them really does change your thinking.