When Jewish kids in the Diaspora are taught Hebrew, the purpose is not primarily to make vacationing in Israel easier, but to put it to liturgical use and to make thousands of years of Jewish tradition more accessible.
However, I’d like to believe that with the language we not only open intellectual avenues, but enable the student to experience the world differently, to see it colored by the sensitivities and the rich experiences of generations of Jews from the recent and distant past.
Now, a new study of bilingual people sheds light on how, indeed, to see the world differently, to experience it from the vantage point of different cultures. Even the simple act of describing a color becomes enriched:
Panos Athanasopoulos, of Newcastle University, has found that bilingual speakers think differently to those who only use one language.
And you don’t need to be fluent in the language to feel the effects – his research showed that it is language use, not proficiency, which makes the difference.
Working with both Japanese and English speakers, he looked at their language use and proficiency, along with the length of time they had been in the country, and matched this against how they perceived the colour blue.
Most people tend to focus on how to do things such as order food or use public transport when they learn another language to help them get by, but this research has shown that there is a much deeper connection going on.
“As well as learning vocabulary and grammar you’re also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world,” said Dr Athanasopoulos. “There’s an inextricable link between language, culture and cognition.