How you speak is who you are

Identity is forged in the interplay of language and emotion. The connection between the two has value. But we only realize the value of something after we lose it.


You may not realize it, but language is the vehicle of our lives. It’s the means through which we communicate our values and orient to the world. Through language, we tend to and access a rich emotional connection with loved ones. That connection with others helps us negotiate our identity. In ancient Greece they knew that it is others who create the context for “me” to emerge and develop. Then we forgot, along with Ancient Greek.

My conversation with Julie Sedivy* about value in language may be a welcome respite for those of you tired of hearing chatter about OpenAI. As fabulous as ChatGPT may be, opening the door to many applications from writing to search, we have plenty of amazing things to explore yet in what makes us human.

In case you haven’t noticed or experienced, the trend tends to go from Bowling Alone to posting alone. Twenty-two years since Robert Putnam wrote the book, the problem of growing loneliness and isolation is far worse than we could ever imagined. 

Alone may be useful for some things.
Survival is not one of them.

There’s more. “Dividi et impera” (Latin) says that the best expedient of a tyranny or of any authority to control and govern a people is to divide it, provoking rivalry and fomenting discord. Rather concise, yet incisive. The power of language at work.

Going online is a poor substitute for meeting with friends or engaging in other forms of gathering. There is plenty of research that shows a positive correlation between a decline in civic involvement and broadband access, for example.
Some maintain that the Internet is a a Pharmakon — a Greek noun that signifies a remedy and a poison, a supposed antidote that can only exacerbate the disease. Comment, like, favor, and reshape all you want, but the atomized version of attention is not conversation. 

And conversation is where we make sense of what’s happening in us and around us. Language is intertwined with our embodiment. Everything you’ve ever lived is in that language. The value in speaking more than one tongue is that you orient to the world very differently in each. Having multiple perspectives is a strength.

Emotion comes for free in your native tongue. Losing a mother language means losing the intimacy and closeness with family. Learning another language as an adult helps develop intellectual capabilities. But you may retain a certain distance from things in that language—as if they were material for observation. 

Multilingualism helps flip outside of North American values and into another perspective, while at the same time retaining complexity of identity with the ability to switch between perspectives. I’d like to think that I’m one of those people who can maintain a beautiful negotiation between languages, using what is appropriate to the circumstance.

Our conversation was mesmerizing. If you listen to it, you will thank me, I promise. Retaining different perspectives generates tremendous value to a place and to the world. As you’ll learn if you listen to the podcast, Julie had to go back and relearn Check as an adult. For me, it was hard-earned becoming fluent in English as an adult, and then going back to Italian (and other languages) to recuperate the richness of expression and thought I took for granted as native and early learner.

The words we use shape our thinking, which in turn influences our actions. Speaking more than one language is the opposite of having a divided brain, as long as you learn to integrate the two (or more). Which is easier to do for children. Learning language(s) early in life opens access to culture. Children are amazing at discerning social rules in the environment they experience. 

In the podcast, I relate the story of Yuki, a Japanese child who had barely started to speak, sitting at the table in a restaurant with family and friends. Everyone was conversing in English. But his grandmother spoke only Japanese. You could see Yuki looking around and realizing this. So he started saying a few words in Japanese to grandmother. Because he understood the social context, this child on a high chair was translating.

Julie says there’s plenty of research that shows society’s language will always be dominant, no parent needs to worry about their child not learning it—it’s survival for them. It’s the parents’ native language that will suffer, if not spoken and taught at home, as in her case with Czech.

So if you speak other languages, talk to your children in them. I’m laughing because that’s how I learned French. My parents used it to speak “privately.” LOL! Children are like sponges. They absorb everything in their environment. So that’s how we little scoundrels learned French. But we didn’t advertise it. Better to keep quiet and know what mom and dad were saying.

If you can teach children even without meaning to, imagine what you could do by exposing them to native speakers via movies, cartoons, books, tapes, music, etc. The internet is useful here. You’ll have a good excuse to travel together. And they can translate for you. My friends’ son speaks fluent Spanish thanks to his parents’ love of Latin American cultures.

We talk so much about STEM education and give little thought to how we become who we are. But learning a language (or more), reasoning in it and absorbing the related culture, is how we got to where we are. We train our bodies and worship athletes. Yet, we give little thought to what we put in our hearts. Languages connect us to emotion.

In all the years I’ve been on this planet, I never once worried that someone would come out of a dark corner and say something truly different and insightful to me. Know what I mean? Meeting someone and speaking with them is the truly connective thing to do. If we did more of it, we would be less alone—bowling or posting—and divided. We have more in common than we suspect.

Julie is an amazing conversation partner. I feel smarter just talking with her.

Just jump into the conversation on value in language with Julie below. 


* Julie Sedivy is a language scientist and a writer. She received a PhD in linguistics from the University of Rochester, where she conducted pioneering research in psycholinguistics, a field that lies at the intersection of psychology and linguistics. 

She has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary, and has authored dozens of scientific articles as well as a popular undergraduate textbook on psycholinguistics, Language in Mind

She now devotes much of her time to writing for non-academic audiences, on language and other topics. Her most recent book, Memory Speaks, explores multilingualism, identity, and language loss. Her forthcoming book, slated for release in 2024, is a series of essays that chronicle the unfolding of language in a human life and its entanglement with experiences of time, love, and mortality.


[Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay]


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