Thinking = Language

Last week, walking along the San Francisco streets, I had many insights. It was a great week at QCON, where I could meet many of the great people in the software development world.

I’d like to share with you one of my biggest insights. It has to do with how language is deeply related to thinking.

English is not my first language (I was born in Brazil and here we speak Portuguese), so I don’t know English as I know Portuguese. When I was in San Francisco, I’ve created a challenge for myself: I wouldn’t think in Portuguese. I had to think everything in English. This was a great experience: I noticed that I just couldn’t think well!

Once I didn’t have the right words to represent my thoughts, the thoughts couldn’t come. Right now, even writing, I’m trying to say something to you, but I just can’t do it properly! So I decided to train my abilities, not just in speaking or writing English, but in THINKING. That’s why I decided to write my blog in English. I’m sure that exercising this continually I’ll improve the quality of my thoughts.

Every time you learn another language, it is not just a new way of speaking, reading or writing, but a new way of thinking. I think that is one of the main reasons hackers and programmers are intelligent people comparing to the average population: they where obligated to learn another language, a programming language in that case.

I think that everybody should learn at least 10 languages at fluent level. And when I say “language”, maybe I mean not just those everybody thinks of, like English, Chinese, Spanish, but languages as the vehicle to express thoughts and feelings. Examples of these languages:

  • Musical language (reading and writing song sheets)
  • Theater language (tragedy, comedy, etc)
  • Programming languages paradigms (Functional, Object Orientated)

Then you should organize the languages you know as I did for my known languages in the following table. Here, the levels go from 0 (knows nothing) to 5 (very fluent):

Language Reading Writing Listening Speaking
Portuguese 5 5 5 5
Italian 4 3 4 3
Hebrew 2 2 1 1
Java* 5 5
Ruby* 3 2
SQL* 5 5
Music** 2 1 4 4

* Assume that programming languages you read and write but don’t speak (I know there are some guys who like to speak in Java, but let’s ignore this fact)
** Song sheets you read and write, for speaking I consider singing or playing an instrument and listening the capacity of recognizing rhythm, melodic patterns, etc.

I know there are a lot of theories which relates thoughts and languages. I don’t know any of them at all. What I’m describing here is just something that happened to me when I tried a self-experience. I just know that the more languages you learn, more easy it is to learn a new one and your ability to communicate and think becomes better and better.

Searching YouTube, I found a very long video of a talk about how these things I said happen in the computer world.

There are some non-resolved topics for me. We really don’t know much about our mind. Maybe some people survive and live well with these doubts, but for me, searching for these answers is the reason of life. That’s why I try so many things all the time. I’ve tried acting in theater, playing and singing music, the Vipassana Meditation. All these different stuff took me to somewhere and I feel I have a better understanding of the world because of them.

I invite you now to learn another language: start with music, or with meditation, or dancing, or with Japanese ideograms. Go there and learn! Then learn more two different languages. Make your language table a 10 rows table and fill it with 5’s. After this, come back here and comment what happened.

2 Comments Thinking = Language

  1. Carlos

    Essa é uma discussão muito interessante. Uma vez, durante uma aula de alemão, meu professor contou que um pensador teria dito que o alemão é o idioma mais apropriado para filosofar. Não consegui achar a citação na Internet, tampouco o tal pensador, mas é ainda assim um argumento interessante.

    Eu acredito que a estrutura dos idiomas influencia fortemente a forma como as pessoas pensam. Por exemplo, em alemão a posição dos verbos é fixa na frase. Por causa disso, temos diálogos como:

    – “Por que você não me ajudou?”
    – “Porque eu não tive tempo.”

    … que em alemão seriam:

    – “Warum haben Sie mir nicht helfen?”
    – “Weil ich keine Zeit hatte.”

    … ou traduzindo direto:

    – “Por que você me não ajudou?”
    – “Porque eu não tempo tive.”

    Penso que essa estrutura rígida do alemão faz com que as pessoas pensem na frase inteira, isto é, em tudo o que querem expressar antes de falar. E mais do que isso, faz com que o ouvinte espere que seu interlocutor termine de falar para que possa entender completamente o que ele quer dizer. Acho que isso pode gerar uma diferença cultural muito forte.

    Além disso, ao contrário do português, o alemão possui significados muito precisos para as palavras (ex.: manga vs. manga) e a própria estrutura gramatical não dá muita margem para ambigüidades. Por exemplo, quem já estudou compiladores e linguagens sabe a dificuldade de se criar um analisador gramatical (aquele mesmo do Word) para analisar frases em português. Exemplo acadêmico clássico: “O menino viu a menina com a luneta.” De quem era a luneta?

    O que quero dizer é que da mesma forma que temos linguagens de programação mais apropriadas para determinadas tarefas, temos também idiomas mais apropriados para determinadas atividades humanas. Daí a importância de aprender e exercitar vários.

  2. Gustavo Barrancos

    [..]Make your language table a 10 rows table and fill it with 5’s. After this, come back here and comment what happened. […]

    Definitely! This will grant me decades of good fun!

    I think in the end most of our daily activities consist in expressing ourselves in different languages (music notation, acting, dance, Lisp, Haskell)
    The human mind is too complex to be represented in one monolithic language. Until we discover the secrets behind the ultimate human communication channel, i guess understanding different forms of expression may help us understand human thinking by looking through different angles!

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