The Monolingual’s Fate


Blog / Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

I’m walking through a multicultural grocery store with a friend. The aisles, logos large like eyes, look like frozen schools of fish in front of me. I pull a fish off the shelf, it’s glass body dense and cylindrical in my hand.

“What does that say?” my friend asks, peeking her face over my shoulder.

“‘Energy.’ It’s some type of Russian energy powder,” I reply.

“Oh cool.” She plucks another jar from the shelf and put it in her basket. Walking down the aisle, she glanced haphazardly at Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish, unaware of what anything actually meant.

You see, my friend only understands English, but she could sure appreciate the calories of other countries.

My ability to read and speak Russian has come in handy only a few times in my day to day life. The random Russian phrases that meander into my life never goes unnoticed, however, and I always feel a little joy when there’s something I can read that the person next to me can’t. The joys of the multilingual.

Russian is similar to the first language I can speak, Bulgarian. Incredibly similar, actually, as the two languages share words and have analogous grammatical structure. They’re also both heavily gendered languages, so no noun can exist without either being masculine, feminine or neuter.

But English, the language I have most proficiency in, doesn’t have gendered nouns. Rather, we have gendered pronouns to describe humans and animals, but that’s about it (to my knowledge). Thus, my first language doesn’t gender all the things around me.

Which leads me to an interesting thought: can gendered languages change how we inherently think about items that need not be gendered otherwise? For example, a chair in Bulgarian is ‘stol.’ It’s a masculine word, and I could understand why. Chairs have masculine attributes to them: strong, upright, rigid, supportive, etc. If I were to only speak Bulgarian and live in a highly gendered society, would I think that a chair is inherently masculine? I don’t know, but the language would prompt me to think that way.

But this isn’t universal. There are some languages, such as Italian, where “chair” is feminine. Would this lead the monolingual Italian speaker to think that chairs are inherently feminine? And how would this lead them to interact with chairs (more gently? More in-line with feminine stereotypes?)

Languages are finite and the speaker has to live with their language’s limitations. Thus, a monolingual speaker understands that a chair is more masculine in nature, whereas a multilingual speaker understands that a chair is a chair, and the use of language around it doesn’t necessarily mean anything since it can be conflicting.

So I look at my monolingual friend and wonder how she sees the world, wonder what she’s missing out on. She’s young. It’s not too late for her to learn French or Russian or Spanish, anything that regards the world differently than English. The more languages she can speak, the less monochrome language paints her world and her subsequent understanding of it. Because chairs are only one of the thousands of nouns we know, and if we think anything is inherently anything (masculine, feminine, whatever), then we limit ourselves to the constructs of gender within the confines of language. It’s another box to climb out of and understand the world in a freer way.

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