Have you been thinking in Japanese?

Have you been thinking in Japanese?

I have always been interested in how the mind parses language. When I was in school, my language teacher spoke her native German along with Indonesian and English. I never asked her, but at the time I thought it was strange that my thoughts were in any particular language. I imagine the language of your thoughts would change depending on the topic you are involved in.

If you think in a different language, that language’s culture is bound to have an impact on your thoughts, I think this is described as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis [1]. Japan has a rich culture which shows in it’s often confusing pronunciation differences, to be completely fluent in a language do you think need to understand it’s history and culture? I thought I would read the Tale of the Heike as it shows an overview of the origins of many aspects of Japanese culture, such as Shinto. I’d love to know how anyone else tackles this topic.

[Thread update]

Take a little quiz [1] to test your “Visual-Spatial Learning.”
It’s in Comic Sans as I believe it was intended for kids, to test at early ages.

  1. http://www.pegy.org.uk/Upside-Down%20Brilliance%20-A4%20pdf.pdf

Okay, first of all (current vocab: 先ず), as per your title I am NOT qualified to be posting here, but I wanted to comment because I have had a theory for a while now about language and its effects on cultures. I feel that the language we think in has a huge affect on the things we do. The languages which are most adaptable, loosely regulated, and more prone to slang and abstract expressions lead people to be more inventive and creative. These are also the more difficult languages. Look at English, Japanese, German as examples and look to the technological aspects of countries which use these languages. Just a thought :slight_smile:

Related to what @ZengoTim was saying, I used to teach English to a woman in Korea who was fluent in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese and she said to me once “my favourite version of myself is my English speaking self”, and I was completely blown away. She felt that the cultural aspects which define the Korean language didn’t allow her to express her true personality, she said it was impossible to be herself while speaking Korean, despite being a Korean woman. She felt that the way English is structured allowed her to be more open and discuss her opinions and thoughts in a way that Korean didn’t allow. She said she enjoyed speaking about cultural and philosophical issues in Japanese and Chinese because she felt those languages were best suited to those topics. It was something that was really interesting to me and gave me a lot of food for thought in relation to languages and cultures.


I heard a story similar to this in which a student at a university was tasked with translating a document into their native language, they were finding real difficulty in beginning. When the university professor talked to them about the issue, the student said that their native language, “just didn’t have such strong expressions in it,” and that “their native language was a really beautiful and friendly language.” After thinking about it, the student realised that they had stopped speaking their native tongue when they were 10 because they had moved to America from their native country and that they still viewed the language in the eyes of their childhood image, with all it’s naivety.

So maybe it is just that her native tongue has been spoiled by some event or negative experience with people from Korea.


I think Korean language and society isn’t particularly permissive when it comes to controversial topics, or individualism (which is often seen in a negative light), especially for a lady of her generation (late 50’s), where she would need to use honorifics when talking to her husband, or even close friends who may be a few months older than her.

When speaking English she was more likely to interact with people from different cultures, and she didn’t need to consider anyone else’s relative position before speaking, she could just say what she wanted, without having to frame it for another person’s ears. Even in class, the people who were speaking English at a very high level had often lived abroad and were more open to discussing things that could be deemed controversial by others.


I don’t think you need to know a language’s entire history to be fluent in it, but language does certainly shape how we think. In a pretty tangible example, there are languages (primarily in Australia) where they don’t use relative directions (i.e. left and right). They use the cardinal directions to talk about things (so you don’t have a left and right foot, but at any given moment you have north and south foot, or an east and west foot, or some varying degree of that). As such, they instinctively try to be aware of the cardinal directions wherever they go and whatever they do.

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Languages that use the cardinal directions primarily in Australia? Is this a joke about Australia being upside down? I’ve never heard this before.

Do you know much about aboriginal languages?

Here’s a video I watched that mentioned it


That’s so cool! I’d always really respected Aboriginal culture and their ways of respecting and living from the land. However, I guess like Japanese was before finding Tofugu, I’d thought it’d be really hard to get into. Thanks for the link, very insightful.

[Edit] learn an Aboriginal language, that is. Especially since there seems to be so many variants throughout the nation.

My English-self has been shaped by a lifetime of reading books and silent observation of others, I feel. I am nowhere near there with Japanese yet, but I do wonder if I will think differently in Japanese once I get there. Sometimes it feels like Japanese culture, as far as I am aware of it, will fit the personality and lifestyle I already have. If that makes any sense…
I have finally registered for Ehon Navi and with my time on WK coming to a close, I am about to start the extensive reading I had been meaning to do for ages.

Well, one aspect that would make Japanese language definitely very different from most other languages I’ve learned is its level politeness. Of course, it’s difficult to say which one is the chicken which one is the egg, but this is most likely related to a social structure that is very… divisible? Very… distinguishable.

Then there are languages that don’t care about other people’s age too much, so just whether they are people you know or strangers.

I’ve heard another language which modifies the language quite a bit similar to Japanese depending on whether you’re talking to someone who’s older or younger. In the society that uses that language, it is linguistically wrong, not just rude, to address those who are older without the proper modifications.

Obviously, it means when I’m talking to Japanese people, I also try my best to adapt to the level of politeness that is deemed appropriate, and it can sometimes be an interesting question if you’ve become politer or you’re simply using an acceptable token of expression that you still don’t care for much. I do know that ever since I’ve been impressed by a degree of politeness that wasn’t available where I grew up, I’m now totally frustrated by the lack of it there (which explains why people were frustrated by my lack of it way back when).

The thing is, this kind of nuance… is something that can only be taught to a certain extent, as it is up to the feelings as for when people feel it’s appropriate to drop the さん or whatnot. You don’t need to know anything a bit far though, just knowing what the current climate of culture is like, just like the Japanese people themselves or the language that I’m fluent with (I know very little of the history of some of the languages I can speak).

On a similar tangent, I also think that people who are well-versed in Greek and its grammars would be a bit more sensitive about time-related expressions because there are some grammars in Greek that don’t exist in any other languages.

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I think the level of respect that is required in Japanese society has greatly influenced it’s language. Japanese people tend to be more respectful of others opinion and views in a sense that they don’t want to challenge the other person.

This can be both a positive and a negative; in Western culture we tend to be very divisive without ever listening to the views and opinions of other, however the ‘respect’ that Japanese people show can sometimes mean that they do not challenge something that they believe to be unjust or unfair.

Obviously this is a very broad interpretation and not everyone in the respective cultures behaves as such, but I think it illustrates your experiences with politeness.

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In Irish (the language), we have no words for yes and no. We’re very indirect when we answer questions (as a culture), but again, chicken and egg; difficult to know which came first - although I suspect that since language evolves to suit the needs of the user, had we wished to be more direct, the language would have evolved to allow it.


No way! Haha. Totally didn’t know that. Oh, man, I’m guessing there must be plenty of jokes that revolve around this.

It’s interesting also to see how much/little language affects that because there are many, many English speaking users around the world, some of which are considered native languages, which don’t always share the same culture as other English-speaking users.

In that sense, there’s a level of mannerism that may persist because of/in spite of the language itself.

That’s interesting to think about. Imagine in India there would be many people who speak English but they have no strong ‘Western’ culture for that English to go with. Maybe then, the more prevalent English becomes, the more it will lose it’s… identity?

I think it also depends how you use the language. I mostly interact with native Japanese speakers in Japanese. So my Japanese “personality” tends to be much more polite and formal than my English personality.

Also because I use my Japanese “in person” so to speak my mannerisms are different in Japanese than English. I lower my head or bow at appropriate times, but only when speaking Japanese. It becomes habitual - watch any native speaker say “よろしくお願いします” and you will see anything from a gentle head drop to a full bow depending on the speaker and situation.

Yeah! Japanese mannerisms are nice. I’ve heard stories of people who have spent a few years in Japan and find themselves bowing as they walk out of a shop or walk in front of a car when they arrive home.

It’s one of the hardest habits to break, I especially find myself doing the little head-nod bow when I say hi to someone that I’m a little unfamiliar with…or if I pass someone in work and I’ve already said hi to them earlier i bow a little as i pass…it’s completely subconscious though, i either realise after I’ve done it or someone else points it out.

I feel like it’s something no one could really be offended by though. So you shouldn’t feel too self conscious about it!