TED Conversations

Ayesha Sayed

Student, UAEU


This conversation is closed.

As a trilingual or bilingual, what role does language play in the creation of your identity? Which language do you think in?

I've grown up speaking 3 very diverse languages, I feel that they've created three distinct worlds in me. I find myself moving in and out of not only languages but cultures as well.
What role do languages play in your life? Do you find yourself thinking in more than one language?

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    Jan 27 2012: Language is the first wonder of human kind.

    In little Belgium, there are 3 national languages: Flemish (Dutch), French and German. I speak the first 2 and my mother tongue is French, even though my father was Flemish. I then studied English and Russian translation, lived a year in the US, studied in the Netherlands and in Russia, then met and married an Italian girl.

    So, as you can imagine, your question triggers many thoughts, but for me the most important thing would be this:
    It begets curiosity, openness, respect for "different" people.
    It is a never-ending journey of pleasure and delight, you never fully master a language, but the more you learn, the more you enjoy it.

    To communicate comes from Latin (communicatio), which means: to s-h-a-r-e .

    Being happy for me is not having 6 zeros on my bank account, it is about sharing: passions, love, ideas (hello, TED), friendship.

    I'm fortunate enough to live in Belgium, a place where, historically, socially, economically, there is no other choice than being open to what surrounds us, which starts with knowing several languages (even though Belgian politicians beg to differ).

    So, every language you know gives you an opportunity to have, or rather, to e-n-j-o-y several cultural identities, which means you can easily share many more meaningful things in life with people.

    In a nutshell: a true wonder of human kind.

  • Jan 29 2012: Language and culture are interwined and play a large role of a person's identity. Take me for example:
    Born to Dutch and German parents, raised in Senegal West Africa, and now living in the United States.
    So when I speak Wolof, the tribal language I learnt while in Senegal, my mood automatically shifts to that of a typical African speaking Wolof. My hands start flying, my emotions start soaring and I feel happier. When I speak English, my mood becomes more subtle and not as emotional. I feel different. When I speak to my relatives in Holland or my Mother in Dutch, I start thinking more about my European ways of life. Languages create different moods and worlds that we as multi lingual people can travel in and out of. Many of us never even experience learning two languages. I consider myself very fortunate as to learning 5 languages and understanding the culture behind each one. I can travel to 5 different worlds all in one day~ How fortunate!
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    Jan 12 2012: I am a multilingual (English, Spanish, Korean, and Russian) and I think in different languages depending on the subject. Also, I have a bad habit of mixing the languages when I speak to someone who knows those languages. More often than not, I find certain expressions or words in one language that exactly express what I want to say that I cannot find in some others.
    Learning a language (and mastering it) is not only linguistic experience but also cultural one. It broadens your horizons, expands your world and enriches your life.
    My little daughters speak three languages fluently and I will definitely encourage them to learn more when they are ready.
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    Jan 10 2012: Language is a very determining point of one's culture. For instance in my native language "Mandingo", you can find so many words borowed from arabic. this language has been constructed over a thousand years and so, from the old empire of Ghana to our days. Today, according to the african country you hear it, it sounds different always adapting to the environnement. Only in the ivory coast, you have more than ten variants of the same language.

    The reason for that is that our population has been for centuries merchants, travelling up to the sub-asian continent. Plus We had a big influence from the arabic surroundings in north Africa, that influenced even the primary religious belief. Most of our people are muslim since a thousand years. As the only language that have been taught and written until the colonisation was arabic, it has taken a central place in the body of this language.
    Besides, you have the ancient egyptian languages influences, that you can find in tens of subsaharian african languages.

    Having learned french at school and using it everyday as a national language opens our attention to anything french, especially when we travel in countries speaking other languages. We feel somewhat belonging to that culture, so we tend to address easily a person speaking french as someone we can trust rather than anyone else. We feel less stranger to each other; the same thing works for people speaking our native language. I remember some kind of warmth going up from my heart when I would hear someone speaking Mandigo in the subway on my way up to the bronx when I lived in NYC.

    But as you get accomodated with different languages, I do not think you choose anymore in what language you think. i believe that I think in something that give sens in all the languages I speak today, therefor the finding of words apply to the language that is called for one coversation.

    Being trilingual does affect our identity as we feel that we belong more to the world than a tribe.
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      Jan 10 2012: Sir, if I may, your closing statement is beautifully said: "We feel that we belong more to the world than a tribe."

      Studies have shown that learning different languages create new neural pathways in the brain, which explains why some multilinguals with brain injuries sometimes lose one language and not another. Further health studies have linked learning languages with an increased resistance to dementia. But I must say, nothing science shows us compares to the emotional connection that we get from the sense of belonging when we hear others speaking our native language, especially when in a land that is foreign (if not openly hostile).

      Again, for your entire comment - well said!
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    Jan 29 2012: Language is tightly interwoven with culture, so it is inevitable that the culture will have an effect upon the manner of speaking. I am a native English speaker, but perfectly fluent in Italian, and have been living in Italy for over a decade. Some of my bilingual friends have told me that they "prefer" me when I speak in one language as opposed to the other, and I am also aware that I am quite different when I change language.

    I have noticed that INTERNATIONAL English is a unique language in and of itself, because in becoming international it has been stripped of a lot of the regional nuances that give a language its unique flair and generational/geographical/cultural context. Since I've been living abroad I speak primarily Italian and "international" English (with non-native English speakers), and I have to admit that when I do have the rare opportunity to speak with friends from my childhood in the U.S., I feel transported back in time and happily dust off some of the old slang that I haven't used in ages.

    If I had to try to classify it, I feel like I am closest to my "real" self when I am speaking either regional conversational English or Italian, because in both cases I am enriching my word choice with pieces of myself and the cultures that have helped forge me. When I speak in "international" English I feel more limited and formal, because it means I am speaking with someone who may or may not be able to understand some of the more place-specific slang or cultural references.
  • Jan 24 2012: I've grown up speaking 7 different languages (and the count is increasing).
    I feel connected wherever I go and it doesn't take me a long while before I start thinking in the language of the place.

    Thinking in different languages is an act that transpires inner beauty and lets your mind capture the underlying essence of all differing opinions and cultures, while at the same time letting you explore the iridescence of the mind space! It simply makes you a better person! I feel that thinking in different languages has imparted a certain 'flexibility' to my mind.
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    Jan 18 2012: I spoke Hungarian until the age of 5, then learned English. At around age 10-12 I started to think in English, before then I thought in Hungarian. It is something if you say that your background is from a certain country/culture, but I believe speaking the language creates that real connection to that culture. Without the language I do not believe you feel entirely like you are part of that culture.
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    Jan 18 2012: I speak English as a primary language, and Korean as a second fluently. I definitely think in English except where Korean concepts that do not translate intrude. I instinctively call Korean things Korean names, and have to translate them awkwardly into English.

    These two languages have helped me to understand the difference in process of thought between these two cultures, and to be keenly aware of the assumptions our formative experiences predispose us to.

    Language is victim to, and perpetuates a way of thought within a culture. As such, those who speak the language are predisposed to that particular way of thought. Koreans tend to associate objects by color/texture, while an English speaker will associate them by shape. These minor differences play out in every aspect of who we are as a human being, and our very understanding of the universe around us.

    Learning these differences has assisted in my ability to converse with those of diverse backgrounds, to first try to appreciate their way of thought, and then to identify any potential roadblocks to our agreement on a point so that I may circumvent them.

    These are very important ideas for a society that will soon be seeking total globalization.
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    Jan 17 2012: I speak three languages fluently: Spanish, English and German. Spanish is my native language. I enjoy learning and teaching languages. So far, My brain works with Spanish better than English or German. Yet I am constantly challenging myself to learn more. Sometimes I feel baffled by all the information I find in one single language. I wish I could master more languages. I normally think and speak in my own native language (Spanish), but most of the information I read is in English. I can read English just as well as Spanish; though my German is not that good, but good enough to carry an intelligent conversation. Indeed, each language I have learned in my life has made quite an impression on my psyche. I usually make myself read in the three languages I use and I force myself to learn a little bit of French, Russian, Italian, Portuguese and Chinese. I think each language has its own charm, and beauty. When I was a little kid I used to stutter, and when I started learning English, I was able to overcome that problem in both languages. Sometimes I have dreamed in English and German.
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    Jan 15 2012: I am bilingual and think dream and speak in my adopted language (Italian). I have trouble writing in Italian however, and am often blocked (like today), unable to get the stuff out of my head and on to the page or screen. Probably I am afraid of the permanence of the written word, of the idea that I may be making simple grammatical mistakes. When I speak in Italian it is like singing, I can adapt and move and express myself freely.

    I hosted an event with the Italian philosopher, Carlo Sini, this summer and he made an excellent comparison of language and culture to machines, to automata that exist outside of ourselves, we learn how to use them, some with mastery, but they are prosthetic devices to transfer our ideas from our brains to others' brains. I think I have mastered only the "real-time" version of my adopted language.
    • Jan 17 2012: Thomas
      Interesting post. Does he have any papers on the web?

      I am not sure I totally agree. I think we can place ourselves into another language-culture. It is just hard.
  • Jan 12 2012: Korean^O^
    English :D

    Korean -_-
    English :(

    Korean :해가 뉘엿뉘엿 저물었다,
    English :The sun slowly set.

    English: Blue, bluish
    Korean: 파란, 파아란, 푸르스름한, 푸르딩딩한, 퍼런, 시퍼런, etc.

    I'm a bilingual and I've been fascinated by finding out the difference between Korean and English.
    Depends on the language I choose, my attitude and mind are a bit different.
    And of course, the way I express and describe something are also dissimilar.

    But the thing is..languages always have something in common.

    And that connects the world and give a considerable meaning to translators.

    (By the way, nowadays, I'm getting proud of my mother tongue as a Korean.
    A bilingual could love both of the languages he knows, but there's always a preferable and familiar one.)
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    Jan 12 2012: Nice question Ayesha,

    I am able to think in 3 languages as well, and try to do so with the languages I'm still not so good at.
    Though I do see differences between the languages, I live in an environment that mixes them up (at least I do...), so I can't put a big distinction between them.

    For me, knowing languages is most useful to increase conversation with other people. As my mother tongue is spoken by at most 30 million people (I guess), and only by 60% of the people living in my country... it does matter.

    There are certainly cultural differences that really become apparent when you learn other languages... For example, I was really baffled that English has no proper word to start a meal, while most other languages do.

    As for identity: like any skill you acquire, it becomes part of your identity.
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    Jan 11 2012: Language is a core component of self, and a means of communication with the outer world, although not necessarily conforming to all of its manifestations, cultural and ideological; then you discover that language begins to make you a citizen of the world, in dialogue with others, no matter how differently they may think: dialogue is the word, multilingual is the platform, accepting diversity is the attitude.
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      Jan 12 2012: ¡Bien dicho! A thought about tolerance and the acceptance of diversity: My personal experience is that those who are multilingual are more likely to have these traits than monolinguals. Did their exposure to multiple languages make them so?
      • Jan 12 2012: Carl
        I think the exposure to languages, where one really begins to communicate in another does have that effect. Living in another culture is also important. You make cultural blunders, you learn from other people, you learn how to be in a totally "other" world.
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    Jan 9 2012: Remember, our outer voice mostly relies on the same neural circuitry as our inner voice. We are bilingual either way. I do think that with each language comes a different identity, slightly removed from the other. In each language, we have a different way of expressing ourselves, different recipients (not all our friends are bilingual) and different cultures we're more likely to be interacting with while we speak one language or the other.
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    Jan 9 2012: I think primarily in English, and my study of other languages has shown that languages frame the passing show is far different ways. So language does help create my cultural identity. This leads to two observations: 1. We must enter into the language world of another culture before we have any grounds for judging its worldview or values. 2. There are parts of human experience which no language can encompass, and it is perhaps here where we can find a common basis for unity--Karen Armstrong's "Charter for Compassion" is an attempt to move beyond the parameters of language to our common humanity. Language always divides, that is its function. Our humanity transcends our language and culture; that is our hope.
    • Jan 9 2012: I hope so too Bob. I so agree with you about worldview and values. Language learning is indispensable.
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    Jan 7 2012: As a multilingual speaker, I realized that I've learned not only languages and cultures, but also the beauty of each language and culture. It opened up another world to look at life with different perspectives. When I think, I think in all languages I speak and switch languages from one to the other when needed. It usually depends on the task I am doing, i.e. if I am working on something in English or reading something in English, then I think in English, and so forth, otherwise, in my personal life I think in my native language.
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      Jan 7 2012: Hi Gulnoza, your knowledge of multiple languages fascinates me. I always felt that I too should speak and understand multiple languages but still am not able to get hang of it. Can you share how you developed this habit which may be of help to me.
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        Jan 7 2012: I don't think there is any habit except love for learning languages and curiosity. When I learned languages I always compared one language to the other languages, found some similarities, differences, tried to associate to each other which made it easier and more interesting to learn.
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        Jan 9 2012: I don't think we have to change to become someone else. If you want to get hang of it, TED Translation will be a good option to try. Find your language to know other ideas and change the subtitle to learn their languages. You will find it very interesting.
  • Jan 6 2012: I have lived in the United States my entire life, but speak Chinese fluently - my parents speak it to me at home, and I have a lot of family in China, whom I occasionally visit. I know what you mean when you say moving in and out of cultures; when I'm in China, things are so different. Customs, mentality, everything. I value the flexibility I have though.

    Since I live in America and am constantly surrounded by English-speakers, I think in English. My Chinese will get worse, if I don't use it. Sometimes, if I've been indulging in Chinese tv shows, for example, my thinking will be in both Chinese and English.

    For me, my Chinese heritage has helped keep me aware, accepting, and appreciative of other cultures. I love travelling and learning about other cultures. I believe being culturally aware is a responsibility and an obligation. It's really helped me get along with people who are different than I am, culturally as well as other things.

    I also studied French for five years. It's a beautiful language, and when I visited France I felt like less of an outsider because I understood its people.

    Diversity and world cultures are things to be celebrated.
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      Jan 6 2012: I can identify with missing languages! I find myself trying to think in all three at times.
      Cultures must be celebrated, also identities. no matter how difference we THINK we are, we all have an inherent need to communicate which is why we learn languages.
      Thank you for your reply.
  • Feb 3 2012: Ayesha
    Thanks for a great question and a great conversation. I loved reading people's ideas on this.
  • W T 100+

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    Feb 3 2012: I speak English and Spanish. I find myself thinking in English.....BUT, when I get emotional, I react in Spanish.

    This is especially so when lecturing, or correcting my children. Spanish pops out. I'll start lecturing in English first, but I'll finish in Spanish for emphasis.

    I find that I make myself understood better in English when writing. But, in speaking, I do well in both languages.

    Great question Ayesha.
  • Jan 30 2012: I'm fluent in Ducth and english, reasonable at German (I was born there), know a bit of French and Spanish from having lived their, portugese from working there, a bit of italian from having done some business there and a little greek from the classics. Although language can really serve as a sort of identity, if you get into it, I prefer to be more flexible.
    Sometimes language as a whole is much easier if you look at all of them at once. I can read most of what I see around me on when I travel in Europe because most words will have a similar word in one of the languages that I know. I also find that I've learned to mix them up when I think,.. or even when I talk, depending on the language skill of the people I'm talking to. Some words or expressions just work better in certain langauges, so, at least in my head, I mix them constantly, even langauges that I don't really speak very wel.
    When I take notes its worse. Anything that holds an idea will do, from cartoons to hierglyphs that I picked up studing history or some foreign word for a very complicated idea that just doesn't exist in any other language. Sometimes math, which is really just a language, as well.

    It seems to me that if young children where taught 'language' at school, rather than one or two particular languages, they'd have a much easier time picking up functional knowledge of the ones they need when they need them later in life.

    Basically, I play with words and language in my head all the time.
  • Jan 30 2012: Languages and living these particular languages, are two very strong identity factors.
    Bilingual since I was a kid, and having learned 3 more languages and studying a fourth right now, languages give you the freedom of being a global citizen, willing to travel and knowing new cultures. And if you get to really travel around the world, if you really get to live the language, you feel self confident, become open minded.
    Languages create strong identities and approach people from all around the world.
    In www.universoprofesional.com we try to give this message to young professionals, to inform them about the importance of being not only bilingual but also trilingual or more.
  • Jan 30 2012: I've grown up with 2 languages and have since learned a few more. Language is more than communication, it is a code which reveals the culture of a people. What are the curse words, these will tell me what is sacred or taboo; how are common sayings expressed in one language versus the other; how does humour work in a language in a particular place etc...I agree with Ayesha that different languages do tend to bring out different aspects of my personality. I think in whatever language best renders the concept or addresses the situation with which I'm dealing at the time. It is not a conscious decision of which I am aware. I have always believed that understanding the code of many languages heps me better conceptualize, think on several levels at once and relate to different perspectives and points of view.
  • Jan 29 2012: There was a time when I was perfectly trilingual, even as an adult. I have now lost my competence with one of the languages. I had given this question some thought when I was trilingual.
    Quite often, when I'm thinking about things, it is virtually spoken out inside my head. And again, quite often, there is an imaginary audience for this, and this audience is usually based on people I had related conversations with in real life. Let's say I'm a banker who likes to watch football with friends. (I'm neither.) When thinking of banking issues, I would "converse" with my colleagues, in the language that I use at work. And when I'm thinking of the game, I would converse with my drinking buddies with whom I watch the game, and I would "converse" in the language I normally use with them.

    There were times when I caught myself in idle thought when driving or riding a bus, about things I have saw then and there. And I suddenly stopped and asked myself what language that was. I tried to "speak out" the thought in each of the languages I spoke fluently, and I could make none of them fit the thought.

    So, for myself, there are times when I think, that I think in no language at all. (When I was thinking this note out, I thought in English.)
    • Jan 29 2012: This is a very interesting point and I quite agree with it. I also notice that sometimes I think concepts that I can't find words for in any language I know.
      And I agree that when I speak or think in a language, the people I spoke to most in my life in that language are present in my mind as an imaginary audience. I believe I speak the languages in relationship to them, because I learned it and practised it by speaking to them.
      It does feel a bit like I'm a different person in every language I speak, but I notice that most when I switch languages with the same person - if I'd been speaking to them in English and we switch to French or vice versa. When this happens it clearly feels like we step into a different context a bit, as if we suddenly look at the world from a different perspective - as if suddenly France is the center of the globe. And the same goes with any other language.
      • Jan 30 2012: It is interesting for me to note that many here, including you, seem to switch perspectives or culture when you switch languages. I tend to not use language in a very colloquial manner, and other multilinguals around me have told me that I speak all three languages in exactly the same manner: MY manner. I don't "get" them! Not that I have an accent in any of these. People assume I'm a native speaker unless I tell them.

        A part of my brain is probably defective ;-).
  • Jan 28 2012: I'm a flemish Belgian. Now, anyone who's ever heard of my country will propably have heard of our difficulties concerning our communities. There are 3 official languages (flemish Dutch, French, German) in Belgium and The Flemish (Dutch speakers) and the Walloons (French speakers) have been in a fight with eachother ever since the beginning of our nation. The key concern of this fight was the way our languages were used; if they were treated equally, wether the speaker of the French language was superiour to the Flemish. This hasn't changed through history, this argument is stil going on. If you have followed political news last year you might have noticed it took Belgium over a year to form a government after the last one fell over communotair questions. I think it is thus fair to say that language forms a great part of our identity. In fact, here it is the key part of your identity. It is was defines you or it is by which you are defined by others.

    Personally, language is an important part of my identity, because of what I just explained. In my own language I can express myself in a way I can not when speaking another language. This is even so where the difference is concerned between the Flemish and the Dutch (Netherlands). When I speak to a Dutchman I can hear the cultural differences between us in every word we utter, even though we are supposed to speak the same language. We use the words differently, both in meaning as in sound.
    That doesn't mean I dislike other languages. In fact, I think that the more languages you speak the 'richer' you become in mind and understanding. I speak Dutch, French, English and I understand German. These languages have given me access to knowledge I would not have had access to if I did not understand these languages. Multilinguism is something desirable. In most cases it leads to a greater understanding of eachother (except in Belgium, doesn't help at all).
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    Jan 28 2012: I see Languages like art ..use correctly it is an expresion of our inner self.. I only speak Spanish,German and English..
    everytime I try to express some deep emotions i dont have to think wich one I will use ..each language has words and their definitions are so accurate on delivering the message.
    I like to add italian and arab to languages I´d like to be able to speak.
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    Jan 27 2012: What a fascinating question to consider! One of the areas I am currently studying is the construction of identity through communication, and as we consider the institution of language as a part of articulating elements of one's identity, this question becomes central to the notion of communicative identity construction. When we socially construct meaning, identity being a form of meaning, with other communicators, we do so within the confines of the language that we speak. Our language gives us access to common or shared conceptualizations about ourselves and the world, opening up some possibilities and closing off others. Someone with access to various language systems can co-construct meaning from within very different public discourses, and therefore has increased resources from which to construct their sense of self. These various discursive resources enable this individual to create space to challenge their identity as constructed in any one discursive formation--in other words, your access to diverse contexts enables you to define your own identity in more distinct, nuanced ways within the more dominant narrative. Very interesting--thanks for posing this question!
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      Jan 27 2012: The basic purpose of language is to communicate. So its gives you the leverage of knowing and communicating with more people . But the best part i like is you can enjoy more literature , music . isnt it the best part of it .
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      Jan 28 2012: I LOVE the subject you are studying and I'd like to know more about it! Is it a graduate degree? Thank you for your reply :)
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        Jan 28 2012: Hi Ayesha,
        I am working toward my doctorate in Organizational Communication. Essentially, I study the processes by which we create meaning within and around organizations and society. I am early in the process-working on it part time as I teach full time-so still sorting through narrowing down my specific research interests, but the central premise is the ways in which organizational and public discourses intersect to inhibit dialogue. Dialogue is a unique form of communication in which each communicator comes to the interaction fully cognizent of his or her positionality---this entails understanding the power inherent within their social positioning and how that impacts their ability to influence the creation of meaning. These communicators then go the extra step of attempting to understand the other person's positionality in the interaction as well. The goal is to create new meaning rather than impose a pre-existing meaning held by either communicator. In my view, dialogue understood in this way is necessary for us to come together to address issues as a society and as a global community.

        One essential element of this process is recognizing the ways in which our identity construction impacts our positionality--and how our understanding of ourselves is both limited by and enabled by the social structures we create through our communication.

        If you're interested in this area of study, you can certainly get a better feel for the way this perspective plays out in considering everyday experience by visiting my blog--it's a personal commentary from my standpoint as a developing academic--a place where I sort through various academic concepts as they play out in my everyday experience. My posts range from purely academic to how these concepts inform my role as a mother raising three young children. It might give a more clear understanding of the way I view and study communicative processes. Feel free to check it out! http://www.kathy-momphd.blogspot.com
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    Jan 27 2012: Hi AyeshiIm a ducth person now living n the uk speaking English / thinking english my dad is in France so I speak French, I studied in Spain so I had to learn Spanish. I can also speak German. Although these are European languages and maybe similar in culture.I feel like Im blessed that I speak these languages and wouldn't like it any other way. Isn't it just great that you can follow these cultures and speak the language? I don't think in more than one language english now. I used to get frustrated and blame the culture but I think that I was just blaming the culture when something didn't really go my way so in the Uk i would say' So english and so on. I At the end of the day I think we are all aiming for the same thing but all in a diffrent way .
  • Jan 27 2012: Hi Ayesha, sorry I do not. I grew up, a blonde in a Mexican hood. I do know, a slang Mexican language. I took Spanish in school. I had class mates, that were Mexican. They knew less, than I did. I do admire language! It is not language, that keeps us apart. It is cultures and bigotry. One can speak a language, one is a dork, for not understanding, the culture! You nailed it! :)
  • Jan 24 2012: I speak 3 languages, only one natively, the others fluently. Language is a intrinsic part of one's culture and vice-versa, so it's perfectly natural to feel different if you're speaking a language that "belongs" to a different culture. If i spend more time in a specific environment of one of "my" 3 languages (like a week-long Esperanto congress), i'll start thinking in that language - but i always count in Portuguese.

    Ever heard of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis? I wouldn't mind learning Lojban next if i had the time (or Russian, or Polish, or Japanese, or...).
  • Jan 23 2012: I am trilingual, and I lived in several countries, once you emerge yourself in the local culture, you start acquiring their customs, and their ways, you even start thinking and even dreaming in their language, but as soon as I change languages,I noticed that my customs change accordingly.