Think about the last time you have met someone who only spoke one language. Do you even remember when that was? Being bilingual has become a norm in modern society, and many people have started adopting even more than just two languages. Whether it be for work, studies, or as a hobby, learning different languages is now understood as a normal, if not even a required thing to do.
However, most people in their pursuit of learning tend to glance over the side effects that learning a whole different language brings. After all, languages, not unlike music, or even trade skills, are an integral part of the culture they are associated with.
Language is More Than Just a Set of Rules
Language serves as a reflection of our thought processes and stands as a crucial means through which we convey the intricacies of our cognitive realms. Language is way more than a mere tool for communication; it is an integral element of culture that imparts uniqueness and specificity. We could state that language is culture and culture is language. There is an inseparable connection between these two. It implies that the language mirrors our values and beliefs. The manner in which individuals conceptualise the world is directly shaped by the language they employ to articulate their thoughts.
Knowing at least two languages affects cognition and interaction with the environment. It for sure broadens your horizons. Each language reflects the history, traditions, customs, social consciousness, religion and way of life of the society where it is formed. Language can convey both the collective characteristics of nations and peoples, and the individual, specific perception of the real picture of the world by different individuals. (1)
Language connects a person with the surrounding world, reflects their worldview and is in constant dialogue with culture. The role of language in the formation and development of personality is huge. When an individual communicates in a specific language, the associated cultural norms and stereotypes come to the forefront. Research of this nature reveals that our personalities are not as steadfast as we might believe. Instead, we adjust our behaviour and even our thought patterns based on the social group with which we are presently engaged (2).
Moreover, some individuals assert that their personalities undergo changes when they switch between languages. Some bilingual people do experience the feeling that they have a separate “personality” for each language. However, this may be because speaking different languages, they behave according to different cultural norms. A change in language leads to a change in cultural expectations.
Using Language to Convey Emotions
Bilingual people often experience varying emotional intensities when communicating in their primary language compared to their secondary languages. Substantial research suggests that individuals feel a greater ability to express themselves in one language over another, or they find comfort in using a specific language in particular situations. The daily use of language to convey emotions is a common practice, yet there is limited and vital research on the diverse emotional reactions of bilingual individuals. Numerous factors come into play when examining fluctuations in emotional states during language use. Researchers endeavour to uncover the reasons behind the disparities in emotional experiences, alterations in modes of expression, and even distinct decision-making when utilising different languages. These disparities may hinge on cultural influences, personal backgrounds, and the events that individuals encounter. Given the subjective nature of bilingual experiences, a more profound exploration is warranted. The self-identification of bilingual individuals by language is crucial, as it profoundly influences their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. (3)
For example, parents consistently employ words to convey and explore emotions with their children. They make it clear that emotions such as affection, encouragement, and criticism can be communicated using various words or expressions. Additionally, it is proposed that the utilisation of different languages by parents to convey emotions carries significant implications for their children’s emotional experience, regulation, and comprehension. However, in families where two or more languages are spoken, the impact of parents’ choice of emotion-related language is much more complicated. (4)
The choice of emotion-related language can shape overall family dynamics and communication. It may influence how emotions are expressed, understood, and responded to within the family, contributing to the overall emotional climate. Children might develop a preference for expressing specific emotions in one language over another, based on the family’s emotional communication patterns.
What Struggles Come with More Than One Language?
While multilingualism is typically linked to cognitive advantages like improved executive functions, there can be challenges or misunderstandings related to memory in multilingual individuals. One prevalent issue is known as the Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon. This occurs when a person is temporarily unable to recall a word from memory, even though the word is familiar. For all our monolingual friends: no, we are not stupid, we have just forgotten this one specific word in all the languages we know!
Besides, multilingual people can sometimes experience interference between languages. This can lead to the unintentional use of words in one language when speaking or writing in another, especially if the languages are closely related. It is worth noting that this may possibly lead to the unintentional use of “false friends”, words that look or sound similar in two languages, but have completely different meanings. Confusion of these words can lead to misunderstandings or even humorous situations. (You better give your German bestie the most boring “Geschenk” than some breathtaking “Gift”.)
Moreover, many individuals who are fluent in multiple languages often experience a diminished emotional impact when expressing themselves in their second language. Profanity in a foreign language tends to lack the intense emotional resonance that it carries in one’s primary language. When acquiring a new language, people often quickly commit swear words to memory. However, the challenge lies in discerning the appropriate context for using these “taboo” words during conversations. Even native speakers find it difficult to articulate why a particular word is chosen in a given situation over another. Translating such words proves insufficient, as some lack equivalents due to cultural nuances in word formation. Occasionally, uttering a swear word in a foreign language may feel awkward, as the emotional connection associated with those words differs from that in one’s native language. Consequently, an emotional gap emerges between languages, leading to instances where the use of swear words in a foreign language may sound disconnected or even offensive to native speakers. (5)
Individuals who grew up being exposed to multiple cultures as opposed to having developed their personality through only one often identify with the term Third Culture Kid. Third Culture Kids (and Adult Third Culture Kids) often find themselves struggling to express their thoughts and emotions well. Since knowing and understanding more than one language and culture changes a person’s worldview, they find it difficult to relate to people who have grown up surrounded by only one language and culture. (6)
Lastly, grammar varies vastly between different languages, and as a result a bilingual speaker may be harder to understand, as they tend to mix not only the words, but entire grammatical structures between the languages they speak. Switching languages on the fly is not only challenging for the speaker, but for the listener as well, because hearing a sentence built in an unusual way may distract from the conversation.
Finland as a Multilingual Nation
The vast majority of people living in Finland speak Finnish, however, quite a few of them also speak Swedish as their first language. The number of foreign speakers coming into the country has also increased the amount of people who speak a different language, thus enabling a much more diverse language pool. In that regard, communicating in Finland has become much easier, as a large amount of the population speaks at least two languages well (Finnish, English).
English in all its varieties has long been mixed with other languages, creating a number of English-hybrids, so to speak. At first such entities may seem chaotic, but confusions of this kind are inevitable in areas where two or more commonly recognized languages are in extensive daily contact. (7)
As a result, people in Finland may naturally integrate English words or expressions into their conversations, creating a dynamic and evolving linguistic phenomenon known as Finglish. This is often seen in urban settings, among the younger generation, and in contexts where international communication is prevalent.
Finglish allows individuals to express certain nuances or concepts that may not have direct equivalents in Finnish. English words or phrases are sometimes used for their specific connotations or cultural associations. It includes using abbreviations, slang, or unique and modern expressions that resonate with a diverse audience.
Much like with Finnish, bits of English have also made their way deep inside many languages in Eastern Europe creating nothing short of new dialects. For instance, while Surzhyk, a pidgin language formed from combining Ukrainian and Russian languages has been long used by a large amount of the population, mixing English into the conversation is a relatively recent trend, especially with young people. As a result, many young people end up with nothing short of a whole dialect that combines three different languages together.
Multilinguism: To Be or Not to Be?
Ultimately, no matter how challenging it may seem, learning a second language is an incredibly important and useful thing to do. And what is even better, it is a lot more fun than you can imagine! Besides, depending on what your native language is and what language you choose to learn second, it could be quite simple, as neighbouring countries have long had histories of sharing grammatical structures and language fundamentals. However, whether or not it is difficult or easy, it is definitely something that everyone should at least give a fair try.
Anastasiia Chasovskykh is a Social Services and Healthcare student at PreProg preparatory programme, book translator and linguist. Her particular research interests include manifestation of bilingualism, and impact of language learning on cognitive brain function and human identity.
Arthur Shengeliya is an Engineering student at PreProg preparatory programme and a tinkerer who loves tools, and considers language to be the most important tool of all. Falling in love with English at a young age, Arthur spends every day trying to learn something new about it.
Outi Lemettinen works as a specialist and project manager in the Continuous Learning team at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. She works in development projects concerning the education of immigrants. She has a master’s degree in economics.
- Smeets, R. (2004) Language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage. Museum international, LVI, 1-2 / 221-222, p. 156-165. (Accessed 14 December 2023)
- Ludden, D. (2015) The Psychology of Language. 1st edn. SAGE Publications (e-book). (Accessed 14 December 2023)
- Marian, V., Kaushanskaya, M. (2008) Words, feelings, and bilingualism: Cross-linguistic differences in emotionality of autobiographical memories. The mental lexicon vol. 3,1 p. 72-90. (Accessed 29 December 2023)
- Ylänkö, M. (2017) “Bilingual is our identity”: exploring identity construction in bilingual families. University of Jyväskylä, Master´s thesis, 97 pages. (Accessed 6 December 2023)
- Yezhyzhanska, A. (2021) Languages and Emotions: How Languages Impact Different Emotional States for Bilingual People (Contains thesis, project and project documentation). University of Europe for Applied Sciences Visual and Experience Design, Master´s thesis, 44 pages. (Accessed 30 November 2023)
- Denise A. Bonebright (2009) Adult third culture kids: HRD challenges and opportunities. University of Minnesota, 359 pages.
- Palmgen, N. (2007) Ammattislangina finglish – Teknisten viestijöiden anglohybridi osana globalisaation diskurssia. Tampere University, Master´s thesis, 97 pages. (Accessed 30 November 2023)