How Non-English Speakers See Language

Hello everyone,

Learning a new language is hard. Really hard.

Those of us who only speak one language often take language for granted.

We assume everyone else sees and experiences language the same way we do. But that’s not the case at all.

People who speak multiple languages have a very different perspective on language from monolingual speakers.

Let’s take a look at how non-English speakers tend to view language.

Language Is a Tool, Not Just Words

For monolingual English speakers, language is just words. Words to express thoughts, words to read, words to listen to.

But for multilingual speakers, language is much more than just words – it’s a tool to navigate the world.

When you only speak one language, that language is deeply tied to your identity, your culture, your way of thinking and viewing the world.

You don’t really experience other languages in a meaningful way.

But when you add another language or two or three to your repertoire, you realize that language is a means to an end – understanding and being understood.

Multilingual people tend to be very pragmatic about language. They use whatever language is most appropriate or effective for a given situation.

Language becomes a utility to accomplish communicative goals rather than something intrinsically tied to their identity.

They Code-Switch and Mix Languages Naturally

One of the most noticeable things multilingual people do that monolinguals find strange is code-switching – fluidly switching between multiple languages even within the same conversation or sentence.

For example, a person might start a sentence in English, throw in a common phrase from their native tongue, and finish the sentence in English again.

For monolingual English speakers, this seems bizarre. Why not just pick one language and stick with it? But for multilingual people, code-switching is extremely normal.

Their brains naturally draw from multiple linguistic repertoires to construct utterances using words from different languages.

They also tend to mix languages frequently, blending vocabulary from different tongues into the same utterance.

Again, this comes extremely naturally to them because in their mental models of language, there aren’t firm boundaries between languages.

Words are just words that convey meaning, regardless of which language they originate from.

They Have Unique Accents and Language Errors

Another aspect of how multilinguals use language differently is their accents and common language errors.

When you learn a new language after childhood, it’s extremely difficult to fully acquire native-sounding pronunciation and make zero grammatical errors.

There are always a few tells that give away your native linguistic background.

For example, German speakers learning English often struggle with certain English vowel sounds that don’t exist in German.

Japanese speakers tend to have difficulty differentiating between the English ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds.

Spanish speakers commonly make certain grammatical errors in English related to noun-adjective ordering.

These accents and non-native patterns become ingrained in multilinguals’ speech from years of language mixing and transfer from their native tongue(s).

While monolinguals may perceive these accent patterns as errors, multilinguals recognize them as normal artifacts of how languages intersect and influence each other in the multilingual brain.

Context is King for Communication

For monolingual English speakers, understanding the literal meanings of words is how we comprehend messages conveyed to us.

We focus intently on parsing individual word definitions, references, and semantics to extract meaning.

But multilingual people tend to rely much more heavily on contextual cues rather than focusing solely on word definitions.

Because they have experience navigating across multiple languages where words don’t always map one-to-one, they become extremely adept at using tone, body language, setting, shared knowledge, and other contextual elements to aid in comprehension.

Certain details of verbal language become less important when you can draw rich meaning from all the other layers of human communication.

Multilinguals develop this acute sensitivity to nonverbal and implicit context because languages map so imperfectly to each other.

Focusing too narrowly on words would hamper smooth cross-linguistic conversations.

Translation Is an Art, Not 1-to-1 Swap

For English monolinguals, we tend to think of translation as essentially a word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase substitution going from our language into another.

To us, translation seems like it should be a relatively straightforward process – just swap the English words for the corresponding words in a different language.

But experienced multilinguals know that high-quality translation is an incredibly nuanced art, not a simplistic word swap.

Because languages encode so many subtle contextual meanings and implications that don’t directly translate, word-for-word substitution produces nonsensical gibberish the vast majority of the time.

Instead, skilled translators have to deeply understand the meaning and intent behind the original message, then re-encode that meaning using naturally flowing language adhering to the linguistic norms of the target language.

There’s a reason that professional human translators are still widely needed despite the prevalence of machine translation – replicating the cognitive feats involved in full understanding across languages is tremendously complex.

Different Writing Systems Are Eye-Opening

Most monolingual English speakers don’t really think about writing systems beyond the Latin alphabet we use for English.

We take this alphabet for granted in the same way we take spoken language for granted.

It’s the default and feels automatic for representing language with written symbols.

But for multilinguals, experiencing different writing systems like logographic systems (Chinese characters), abjads (Arabic script), syllabaries (Cherokee), and others provides mind-opening perspectives.

Unlike English where writing has a relatively straightforward mapping between letters and sounds, many other writing systems involve much richer complexities.

Mastering these non-alphabetic writing systems illuminates alternate ways of visually encoding language beyond our alphabetic norms.

Multilinguals develop an understanding of how writing isn’t just a transparent code, but a symbolic system reflecting deeper linguistic and cognitive patterns.

Writing systems are divergent solutions to the common problem of how to map spoken words to symbols and encompass diverse cultural viewpoints on representing language.

Language Learning Is Always a Journey

Most monolingual English speakers tend to see learning a new language as having a defined endpoint.

We think there’s a point where you’ve “learned” a language and can check that box as complete.

Perhaps by achieving a certain test score or being able to converse comfortably.

But multilinguals know that language learning is truly a never-ending journey without a final destination.

Even if you manage to become highly proficient, perhaps even achieving so-called native-like mastery, you’re always still a language learner.

That’s because language is such a rich, intricate, limitless system tied to culture, history, contexts, and the human experience.

There are always deeper levels of understanding, idiomatic expressions, humor, word play, and domains of knowledge to continue absorbing like an endless stream.

Language evolves and shifts, so learners must continually refine their models of how the language works.

Multilinguals understand that the pursuit of language acquisition is a lifelong endeavor where the journey itself is the profound reward for accessing broader channels of communication and cognition.

An Appreciation of Language’s Complexity

Ultimately, the core difference in how multilinguals perceive language compared to monolingual speakers is their profound appreciation for just how amazingly complex and intricate language truly is as a human phenomenon.

When you only know a single language, it’s all too easy to take it for granted as something simple, utilitarian, and innate.

But multilingual people see firsthand the staggeringly complicated cognitive machinery underpinning our abilities to communicate through language.

They gain an enlightened perspective on how language intermingles with culture, frames worldviews, evolves over generations, and acts as the foundation for how humans process and represent our experiences.

There’s no single way that non-English speakers view language – their perceptions are colored by their unique linguistic experiences spanning different families of languages.

But broadly, multilinguals develop a deep reverence for the sophistications of language that monolinguals often overlook or never encounter.

Their abilities to navigate that complexity is what enables the rich interconnectivity of our multilingual world.

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