The Blurry Boundary of Languages

A few days back I saw a discussion at regarding Bilingual conversations. Interesting topic. A bunch of people commented following that thread. One guy mentioned how he thinks one type of thought in Dutch and another in German, etc.. I then realized that when it comes to thinking, I can¡¯t tell which language I am using. For me, thoughts don¡¯t seem to use grammar and spelling.

A good friend of mine is a native Cantonese speaker. We communicate in English always because Cantonese is beyond me. One day I was in her car and she was playing a Cantonese singer¡¯s CD. At the end of the song I turned to her, ¡°All the while I had no idea what she was singing but suddenly I realized I understood one complete sentence crystal clear! So I knew she sang that in Mandarin. ¡± My friend raised her eye brow, ¡°THAT, was in English.¡± You can imagine how shocked I was. Apparently I reached the ¡°end¡± without noticing which ¡°means¡± I¡¯ve taken to get there.

Here are a few division of tasks I’ve noticed. When counting I have to use Chinese, same with doing simple arithmetic, especially when multiply-table is involved. When swearing, English is the language of choice. I have no problem with any four-letter words. But merely ¡°think¡± in Chinese dirty words makes me feel embarrassed. 🙂

8 thoughts on “The Blurry Boundary of Languages

  1. Interesting. First of all, do we all read the same stuff? Blame it on blogdex or popdex or anything like that. 🙂

    Second, I still hate the F-word, but I can bear with it. What I don’t get is why so many people use the “MF”word. Technically, that’s dad, huh? :p

    Third, I don’t have that English/Chinese preference. To me, dirty talk is dirty talk, and swearing is swearing. No matter what language we use, it just sounds equally bad to me.

    Fourth, Cantonese isn’t really that difficult. You should be able to crack it with ease, simply because you are in California and Cantonese is simply ubiquitous there.

  2. I started following Jason and Meg’s blogs after I re-read this article ( recently.

    I don’t associate any morality baggage with swearing words in general. They are expressions. no biggie. All the good manners instilled in me by my family were done in Chinese, which is hard for me to shake. I think my friends remained in China eventually got over that too after College. I¡¡missed my chance. 🙁

    I’ve never felt any pressing need to express myself in Cantonese (except maybe when I’m going for dimsum), and I’m lazy. So Cantonese has to wait. 🙂

  3. One of my favourite rants…

    Isn’t it interesting how the dirtiest word in English, ‘fuck’, means ‘sex’. The ‘dirtiest’ possible thing you can say to someone is go have sex. Teach a child this and they are literally ‘fucked’ for life – how difficult it is to see things otherwise let alone realize we can see them otherwise.

    Whoever controls reproduction controls life. I believe we largely can only think what we can speak (or read or sign or …). Control the language and you control people’s thoughts.

  4. I recommend ‘This Perfect Day’ by Ira Levin to read an interesting take on the use of language. In this dystopian future, there is no violence and the new f-word is ‘fight’. The equivalent of today’s mother-fucker is brother-fighter. Fuck is an everyday word. Instead of saying ‘shit’ when something goes wrong people will instead say ‘hate’.

  5. haha, very neat. I like your posts. mfd. 🙂 Thanks.

    This morning I was listening to KQED’s Forum, where a Mr. ACLU was counter-arguing Ashcroft’s Patriotic Act. He was explaining how it is eroding civil liberty and turning the US into a police state.

    A thought occured to me then. There are literarily two kinds of people in the world. Each side thinks it is obvious to go their way. I wonder if we are made of two different ingredients? How can we tell which group anyone belongs? There doesn’t seem to be a set of rules. For one “hate” is the dirty world, while for the other “fuck” is.

    The latter is apparently always in charge. :(((

  6. Interesting. My first reaction to the articale was that this guy seems very analytical — look at all those systemetical questions he came up with!

    I think our brain is so amazing it can accomplish a certain task in many different ways. I think sometimes we think in the abstract, but other times in specific languages (I’m pretty sure that I’m thinking in English now, as I’m writing). I know when I must have been thinking in English if someone asked me what I was thinking in Chinese and I couldn’t answer, because I had to translate my thought. If I think in the abstract then it wouldn’t be a problem.

  7. hm, i didn’t think kottke’s questions are too interesting either. maybe it is because what you noticed, too logical. 🙂

    I think I’m more confused lately than before(before I started writing in Chinese). Sometimes when I try to formulate what to write, i have a jumble of Chinese and English phrases that I have to sort through. 🙁

    What I meant in my original post was when it comes to pure thinking, i don’t think language matters. But writing is supported by some formulation, i don’t consider that pure thoughts. :p

    This reminded me of something else. The other night, i received this really long discussion thread from FZ. They were all in Chinese, the topic was Picasso. After reading it, i wanted to write something to express my opinion. Immediately I realized I had to use Chinese. So i actually created a Chinese weblog. Before I started writing my entry, to refresh my memory I dug out my old diary entry on the Matisse Picasso show I’ve seen earlier this year. Problem was that diary entry was in English. So i did another mental switch and wrote a short blurb in my English weblog instead.

    Till this day I’m still yet to write that Chinese weblog. 🙁

    What I wanted to say was before I have anything concrete in front of me, let it be the Chinese Forum discussion forwarded by FZ or my diary entry, when i think of Picasso, i think of color, emotion, story lines, my feeling for his paiting, the changes in my liking and dislikes regarding his paintings. None of them were in any form of language. They were concepts, not really abstract, are they?

    Or let me put it in a more geeky term, they were all in machine language. assembly code, 1s and 0s. But once i started thinking of writing, i have to decide on a higher level language, Java or C? :)))))

  8. hahaha, that was pure geek! You should explain this theory to Alice, and maybe you’ll make a great contribution to Artificial Intelligence! 🙂

    Another thought when you mentioned Picasso. I guess we (at least I) tend to associate images and sound (and by extension, abstract thoughts) with the language that first come with them. Like numbers, for the longest time I had to consciously “translate” them from Chinese to English. Now I’m finally used to “think” of them as English. Then I started learning Spanish, and the numbers are stuck in their recently acquired English form in my mind.

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