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Do bilingual German speakers see the world differently?


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A new study released by Panos Athanasopoulos, a psycholinguist (someone who studies the fields of  psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics) suggests there is a difference between the way a German speaker perceives the world compared to an English speaker.

Athanasopoulos believes this cognitive difference boils down to how German speakers view and describe events in contrast to English speakers. Actually, he takes his research a step further, with the question, ‘Can two different minds exist within one person?’ ” in relation to a bilingual speaker.

He is not merely referring to grammatical vocabulary, so much as, an actual difference in perspectives.  Results of his research conclude German speakers are more likely to focus on possible outcomes of people’s actions, whereas, English speakers pay more attention to the action itself.  Implying an advantage of being a bilingual speaker (in this case German) is the ability to have alternate visions of the world.

I am curious to hear back from German/English (and others) speakers about your viewpoint on this subject.  I am not sure, if this study is conclusive evidence; although, there is a certain amount of substance to his theory about the advantages of being a bilingual speaker.

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  • 3 months later...

I posed this question to my boyfriend, who is a native German speaker that is also fluent in English. His response to the title of the thread was; "Yes, Germans make their decisions based on 'will I get beer if I do this?'" :P I got a giggle out of it... Especially because it goes hand-in-hand with the "German speakers are more likely to focus on possible outcomes of people’s actions", haha.

Joking aside though, I can see how that difference could be, in fact, true. I don't know if its true in every case, with every German speaker thinking one way and every English speaker thinking another, but I do notice a significant difference in how he thinks from how I do, just speaking of the two of us. To him, life definitely IS based on thinking of outcomes... though sadly he has a habit of focusing on the worst outcome possible. My actions are more based on a whim, whatever I'm doing at the time. He is able to see from my viewpoint when I ask him to though, whereas I find it hard to actually think of outcomes beforehand.

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This is a really interesting idea, and I think it could actually be true. If german speakers and english speakers see the world differently, then it's highly probable that people who speak both languages see the world in a completely new light. It's quite a fascinating theory, and I hope that in the future we do find out whether this really is true or not!

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First of all I've always believed in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity - in short, the language you think in necessarily influences what you think about, and the way you think. This can be because some words may not exist at all or are a lot less common. Gendered nouns affect it, too.

Note this does not mean it is physically impossible for people of a certain language to learn a foreign concept. But it does mean it is much more difficult to think of and thus won't come up in casual discussions.

Charlemagne once said "To have another language is to possess a second soul." so it's not even that new an idea!

An English example is "nurse". Nurses are by definition of the word always female. You can be a "male nurse" but that implies you're an exception, and that the majority of nurses is expected to be female. That's actually borderline sexist!

German used to have "Krankenschwester" (nurse) too. It literally means "sister of the sick", going back all the way to the nuns of religious orders. A male Krankenschwester can't exist. Krankenbruder, while technically correct, is an extremely uncommon and archaic word.

That's why in 2004 a new law made it so the profession is called "Krankenpfleger": "carer of the sick". The gender matters a lot less (the word becomes a simple Krankenpflegerin if you insist on differentiating).

I am a native German who speaks English fluently. I do notice myself seeing the world differently when I spend a long time thinking in only German or only English. Sometimes when I get stuck on a problem I've learned to switch my thinking language to try and see it from a slightly different perspective.

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  • 2 months later...
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I'm not very familiar with German, but I am somewhat familiar with dutch, and I know both of them are really similar.  I know grammatically speaking they are not so similar, but I can easily see the differences, specially when it comes to English.  I have noticed that the lack of a separate word for ''when'' and ''if'' can make the dutch sound really hesitant, and sometimes I do wonder if that is how they perceive the world?  The fact they lack a separate for for ''when'' and ''if'' makes me wonder what other surprises I'll find on the way.    In short, yes I believe your language can really be a determinant when it comes to how you see the world. 

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