Monday, August 30, 2010

3 ways your language shapes your speaking


Recently, languages--whether your mother tongue or someone else's language--have been highlighted for how they can shape the way you think, describe something colorfully or even affect your credibility with listeners. Check out these three insights into the language you speak:

Can your language shape your thinking?

It's an important issue for speakers and for speechwriters, and a subtlety you may not have considered before:  Does the language you speak shape the way you think?  That was the topic of a long New York Times article this weekend, full of insights speakers should consider before putting their language to use--or listening to someone speak in another language.

What your language requires you to consider is one aspect the article examines, and gender's among the examples:
Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.
How we give directions, talk about the space around us, and even how we perceive color also get different lenses through lanugage, says author and linguist Guy Deutscher, from whose book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languagesthe article was excerpted.

Can it add color to your speech--across languages?

Lanugage can be colorful, indeed, but idioms vary widely from language to language. Speechwriters for jet-setting speakers and any writer who wants to use an idiom should dip into Jag Bhalla's book, I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World. (The title idiom hails from Moscow, and is the rough equivalent of "I'm not pulling your leg.")  Interviewed on The Splendid Table radio program about food-realted idioms, the author is another rich source of background and explanations for idioms from many cultures.

You'll want this special reference for at least two reasons: To keep yourself from making international faux pas with inadvertent or inaccurate idiomatic phrases, or to target a specific audience with its own idioms.  Since idioms, by definition, can't be understood directly from the words they contain unless you are a fluent speaker of a language, this book also will be handy for those working, speaking and writing in a second (or beyond) language.  You can listen to the audio interview with the author here.

Can speaking in a second language, with an accent, hurt your credibility?

The answer is yes, and researchers think it goes beyond xenophobia.  A recent study--by two researchers who speak English with accents--found that the result is distrust, according to coverage of the research:
Apparently, when we don’t understand what someone’s saying, we lose confidence in the speaker altogether.  According to recent research, words and pictures that we can process easily — ones that we don’t have to work to decipher — tend to be perceived as not only more pleasant, clearer and less risky, but also more truthful.
Not comforting, but if you are one who's presenting in a second language, check out these tips based on a related query from a reader. Share your experiences with speaking and language in the comments.

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