Language, when you talk about it, I get very excited. As you may not know, I am an extreme “closet language geek”, or “closet linguist”. I agree with Mr. Marshall on the idea that we do not think about it much, but as a language geek, I think about languages a lot. I am almost exposed to languages everyday because I think about it very much because I find languages a very beautiful and fascinating thing, n’est-ce pas?
I have no memory of learning a language when I was a little three-year-old innocent child until my mother tells me the story of how I learned my mother-tongue, Vietnamese. My mother said that at the very first moment the acquisition of Vietnamese, it took me only fifteen minutes to learn all 29 letters of the Vietnamese alphabet. What astonished my mother more is that I pronounced every single letter and the first Vietnamese words very well even though there were little mistakes but they were very minor. Some time later, I began to read a whole newspaper article without any problem at all, probably because I could utilize the sound of each letter and combine them rapidly inside my childish mind. After that, I began to experience naming explosion. For some apparent reasons, I have a vivid memory that my mom was out for work as a real-estate agent and I stayed home with my good ol’ baby-sitter. While she was cooking food for the wee me, I came to her and suddenly naming all the kitchen utensils, food and different kinds of food containers I see in front of me! My mother told me that it was hilarious that I labeled ants and ears in a very weird name in Vietnamese since it was too hard for me to say those two particular words. Namely, “bi bi bò bỏ” for an ant and “bồ xá” for an ear… (if you know how to say those two in Vietnamese, that is). Then, my mom said that I commit little overregularization but I frequently speaks in broken Vietnamese with just only two words or more that one can still understand, that is telegraphic speech. I only said “want milk” in Vietnamese back then when I wanted milk, my favorite drink of all time.
Oh yes! Vietnamese and English, they are totally different language with no relation at all in terms of language family tree. Consequently, both have very different syntax, grammar, morphemes and phonemes when compared, like Mr. M. said in his post. For example, the verb “to be” is conjugated according to the subject pronoun you use (e.g. he), but in Vietnamese, you only have to simply put the word “là” after any subject pronoun. For example, “tôi là” and “họ là” means “I am” and “they are”, respectively. This makes Vietnamese easier to learn because there is no conjugation in Vietnamese at all regardless of tenses, while English does, but still there are no big changes in conjugated verbs as French, this Romance language have regular AND irregular conjugations that you must memorize! Speaking about phonemes, Vietnamese does not have the sound of the diphthong “th”, very many Vietnamese that learn English have trouble pronouncing these simple yet very common word: “three”, “the”, “those” etc. Additionally, Vietnamese does not produce air when pronouncing the sound of a word’s last consonant, such as “six”. As a result, my mother cannot properly say “six cats”, instead you will hear her say “sick cat”. However, English does not have tones like Vietnamese and Mandarin, so it is very hard for many Westerners to learn Mandarin and even harder for Vietnamese because the former has four tones while the latter has six tones!!
As for Whorf’s linguistic relavity hypothesis, I totally agree that language affects our thoughts and our way of percepting the world (world view)! As a multilingual person, I can say that language reflects culture through various aspects, mostly their lexicon and their unique phonemes. But, I think the most prominent aspect to prove this hypothesis is correct is proverbs. Proverbs are sayings that express a culture’s beliefs, usually using metaphors or symbolism. For example, some of you Vietnamese out there must have heard this following Vietnamese proverb before: “eat Chinese food, live in a Western-styled house, marry a Japanese wife”? This is a popular notion that refers to how Vietnamese husbands think an ideal life should be, that is, referring to how Vietnamese husbands view the world.
P.S. I am such a closet linguist….. *sigh*