The Relativity of Language and Culture - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

After I say that I grew up bilingual, most people immediately ask me which language I learnt first, a question I don’t know the answer to. The sound for ‘mother’, mama, is the same in both English and Cantonese. Growing up in Hong Kong, my English lessons at school were ESL, but I was born in America and spoke English ‘like a native speaker’. I didn’t perform well in Chinese classes, but coming from a Cantonese-speaking family in a Cantonese-speaking city, I still spoke the language fluently. Straddling the line between two languages and cultures that almost refused to see middle ground, I didn’t know which to call myself a native speaker of or even which nationality to lay claim to.


This kickstarted a lifelong interest in the role of language and cultural identity. While in Hong Kong, I was considered incredibly ‘Western’ in my behaviours and attitudes. Classmates in primary school even called me ‘gwai mui’, a slang phrase for white women. However, after moving to the US, the way I viewed the world was considered ‘Eastern’, overly collectivist, and even primitive by some of my more racist and judgemental classmates. Our perceptions of the world were so fundamentally different, and as I started to grow as a creative writer focusing on putting words to my feelings, thoughts, and experiences, I began to wonder: the source of many of these differences come from culture, and culture is rooted in language. Could the language(s) we speak, use, and think in affect the way we view the world around us?


As shown in Orwell’s 1984, it is difficult to have a thought if there are no words to put to it. Language shapes thought, and after taking AP Psychology, I finally got the words and name for my idea. Linguistic relativity—how language affects culture and the way we think and perceive. For example, the Chinese language illustrates the culture’s demands of filial piety as well as its hierarchy of respect with separate words for “older sister” (姐/jie), “older brother” (哥/ge), “younger sister” (妹/mei), and “younger brother” (弟/di). This differentiation of familial roles further demonstrates how the language itself demands that the individual be seen in context of their communities and in relation to others.


Once I had the words to put to this idea and concept, I realized how much I subconsciously switch between thinking in English, Chinese, and ‘Chinglish’, the combination of both. I use Chinese when doing math because numbers make more arithmetic sense and have quicker sounds, but English when I need large, sweeping abstractions. Since I already did it subconsciously, I wondered what would happen if I started forcing myself to think in multiple languages.


The effect was almost revelatory. Imagery, character, and relationship based, Chinese is more specific than English and made it easier to relate things to each other. Furthermore, while I enjoy the grammatical structures and vocabulary roots of English, Chinese allows for more syntax experimentation, imagery, and concrete language. By occasionally thinking in Chinese while writing in English, my academic writing became more concise and my ideas more interconnected. My creative writing now contains more flow, wordplay, and metaphor. Switching between languages and dialects further aided in the continual evolution and solidification of my personal writing style.

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The theory of linguistic relativity and my practice of switching between languages has helped me better consider the perspectives of different cultures and view the world with different lenses. It has diversified the way I view social issues and analyze literature, improved the way I write, and made me utilize more critical thinking. Not only that, it has also helped me balance having collectivist cultural values in an individualistic society and helped me become more understanding of other views. While it sometimes complicates things when I forget what a certain word is in another language, I believe that overall, thinking in multiple languages has been beneficial to me, and I intend to continue doing so into the future.

Language, culture, thought, and identity exist and affect each other in a cycle of mutual determinism. As someone who identifies with multiple cultural identities and uses different languages, it only makes sense that I respect the cycle by allowing my thoughts to shift with them. Why force myself to fit into any particular box when I can choose to honour them all?



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