Written Chinese is a pictographic language: the symbols are representational, with each depicting a full word or concept. For example, the word for "island" was, originally, a picture of a mountain in the water where birds land; the current version has been "blurred" by the use of brush instead of stylus, but you can still make out some of the concept.

What's important here is that, with pictures, you can't really denote tense - the desgination of whether something already happened, is happening, or will happen in the future. As such, written - and even spoken - Chinese has no real tense for any verb. If you want to say you went to the doctor yesterday, you quite literally say, "I go to the doctor yesterday."

Chinese is of course not the only language that has this issue - and English has plenty of problems on its own. While these differences go a long ways towards explaining the odd syntax foreigners use in non-native languages, there are other implications.

Scientific studies have shown that, if your language doesn't have a word or concept for something, it is much more difficult - if not downright impossible - for you to think in terms of that thing. Colors and musical scales are easy examples: anyone used to "western" music will have a very hard time differentiating all the notes in Indian music. People joke that Innuit have 50 words for "snow", but what they really have is 50 different things they can identify which, to us, are all simply "snow": we lack an awareness of differentiation that they can make.

Most people I know look at a block of code and simply say, "Oh, it's a program." However, I differentiate between: markup, interpreted, and complied code; imperative, procedural, object-oriented, and functional languages; etc. I have words for all of these, and thus I also have concepts behind the words.

And, having the word and the concept influences other aspects. Philosophies in China (and similar Asian culturs) tend towards timelessness, reincarnation, and "balance" between action and non-action - all of which makes sense when we consider that their language doesn't easily differentiate between past, present, and future. If I can't describe the differences between tenses, won't my phrasing - and eventually my thought pattern - reflect that kind of timelessness?

I've heard one definition of "genius" which states it as the ability to conceive of something that one doesn't have the language to describe. Many of us have invented words at times, trying to differentiate something that heretofor hasn't been differentiated. Sometimes it's a matter of nuance, and sometimes it's simply a concept that doesn't exist in our native language. A recent addition to the English language (beyond mere technical or "slang" terms) is the concept of a "meme", defined by Richard Dawkins.

This is probably the best argument for studying multiple languages - and not just ones with a common root. If you speak English, learning German - or even a romance language - doesn't give you nearly as much as learning Greek, Chinese, or Russian. At the same time, English has become the international language not just because of the power of English-speaking countries like the US but because of its amazing breadth: English has adopted/stolen/incorporated more words and concepts from other languages than any other language in existence. It also has more tenses than any other, and so one can make more precise statements in English than in any other language - a major benefit in technical and scientific fields.

And, yet, any language still has its limits. My favorite example of a concept which does not exist in English is that of the Greek arete: it's been loosely translated as "virtue" or "purpose", but "essence of being" would also be close. None are exact, though; it's a concept which only exists in abstract association in English, and yet was so intrinsic to Greek culture that it is the reason for the Olympics.

The important factor to remember is this: even the language you speak can frame the concepts of which you can think. It's important to try to work beyond linguistics to more abstract thoughts that cannot be easily converted into language. Who knows - you might even get to make up a new word.

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