Can language transform your life?

“You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.”

from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

These words spoken by Professor Higgins, the speech expert who transforms a Cockney girl into a lady by changing the way she talks, got me thinking about language as a tool of metamorphosis. It’s a personal question for me, as at a rather advanced age I’ve had to move to a different language environment and struggle to learn new speech habits. Am I changing into a “quite different human being”? How is this “new speech” affecting my life?

Higgins makes Eliza speak with marbles in her mouth – Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard in the 1938 film of Pygmalion

Although with typical egotism Higgins sees himself as being the active one in this process, we can also consider him as the instrument through which Eliza changes herself — it was her choice to change the way she spoke, though she did not quite realize the repercussions, or what she was really getting into when she began. Learning a new language, a new speech, is an activity of the whole person. It requires flexibility in body, soul, and mind, a softening and a remodeling, into new shapes that disclose new and sometimes unexpected or discomfiting possibilities.

It’s no accident that the myth Shaw’s play was based on concerns a sculptor who fell in love with his beautiful creation, for language and sculpture are closely linked, though one has an invisible and the other a visible expression. Learning a new accent or a new vocabulary does more than add to our cognitive stores of memory and mental association. It links us to another way of life, a different facet of the many views to be taken of our wide world. As Shaw says, it breaks down the barriers that divide soul from soul. And unless it’s done in the most superficial way, that has to change us, somehow.

I do experience the “remodeling” process at work in myself. It’s not an entirely pleasant sensation. A lot of the time I feel merely confused. Bearing with such confusion has been perhaps the biggest way I have changed, letting go of my need to see everything in clear and definite outlines. It’s seeped into my relationships and into my spiritual practice, too. I think I’ve gotten softer and less instantly reactive, less fixed on conceptual certainties, more comfortable sitting in a “cloud of unknowing.”

I don’t think I’m going to end up having my life as dramatically changed as Eliza’s was. But I already can tell that, as with her, there is no going back to the way I was before. This kind of change runs deep.

Can you think of other examples of how changing your language changes your life? Have you experienced this yourself?

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13 thoughts on “Can language transform your life?

  1. I love the way how literature and it’s offshoots has the power to change how one sees life in general as well aspects of one’s own life. Staying with a French family in my teens certainly broadened my world view and well as making sense of a foreign language in its proper context. And having lessons in Welsh, though ultimately abortive, definitely helped when putting down roots in the land and the culture of Wales.

    An unpleasant right-wing politician in the Thatcher era declared that the national cricket team which you supported revealed where your loyalties really lay; and though his bald and provicative definition of patriotism really rankled, it’s true that being pleased when Wales wins in rugby or football, for example — especially when up against England — is an indication of the direction in which my allegiance has drifted, and this from a totally non-sporty individual!

    1. Beating another side through a game (stand-in for war) is the opposite of learning their language and being able to communicate, to build something new rather than just subduing and subjugating. I do wish we could get beyond this, but the pull of that mentality is very strong.

      1. Myself, I was never into competition, cooperation always seeming to me a much better way of living life, so I do really and truly agree with you. I suppose it’s the striving that matters — but even though rugby union has always had a tradition (missing in soccer) of admiring and respecting the opposition, I heartily dislike aggression in any form, ritual or in reality.

  2. I have already thought about it for teenagers who grow up in disadvantaged places, you can hear where they come from in their speech, too fast, bad pronunciation, notably syncopated and I always wonder how it will be of disservice once they want to find a job ? Youngsters are learning to speak, to express themselves in school but it doesn’t work for everyone and as a worker’s daughter who “evolved” into a cultured environment, I feel keenly the difference, as if I don’t belong in one place or the other. The way you speak, even learning the “langue de bois” as we say in French (speaking a lot and drowning the fact that you’re offering absolutely no information) does influence your life. As a native French speaker, who learned some Breton and Spanish, and even some sign language, I’m very much interested in languages, etymology – I love reading dictionaries ! Words are powerful. I also noticed, during all the years I’ve been reading English, that something written in English, even in slang, might not shock me the way it does if I read it in French – maybe, even if I understand what it says, it creates some kind of distance ?

    1. Interesting thoughts – it’s a complex issue. Not belonging in one place or the other was Eliza’s dilemma too, and for many expatriates as well. We feel at home through language and it’s much harder to change that than to move house.

  3. Entering a new profession is a sort of language that changes your life! When I joined my first law firm after graduating I had to laugh at the crusty old (male) lawyer who kept asking me, “What are you?” I tried various responses: my name, the fact it was my first day, my department, where I had gone to law school, and others. Finally, he said, “What’s your technology?” When I told him I had majored in History and Literature and had no technology, he walked away in disgust and never spoke to me again. It turned out there were two factions in this law firm – intense engineers and those who thought a few English-type majors were needed to translate the gobbledygook into language the general public could understand. The engineers won and I got laid off about 18 months later when the economic downtown began. It was not a good fit although the best paid job I ever had!

    When I was in jr. high or high school my mother took me to see Pygmalion in a theatre. She loves My Fair Lady and thought I should see what it was based on. She was amazed at how much of the script had made it unchanged to the musical.

    1. Very interesting example! Language is more than words; Eliza had to learn a new way to behave, walk, dress, and even think. Technology is a language of our time, for sure – I’d hate to make it mine exclusively, but it can be awfully useful.

      Apparently Rex Harrison was really quite influential in making sure Shaw’s words were retained in the musical. Julie Andrews talks about that in her memoir Home, which was also wonderful.

  4. I am always surprised at the way learning a new language shapes my brain in new ways. English has nouns and verbs and objects, and that makes me think objects are discrete things. It also gives me a feeling of separation from other things that I’m not sure is a reality.

    (Not sure any of that makes sense…just some tentative thoughts….)

    1. It makes perfect sense to me! It can be hard to talk about the differences between languages because we are bound by the limitations of the language we are using. Naming objects definitely makes us see them as discrete things, but I could imagine a language that named objects differently according to their function, or who possesses them, or some other category … it would be a very different way of seeing the world.

  5. As in Shaw’s play, how changing your language changes your life can often involve someone getting rid of an accent. I grew up in southern Missouri and Arkansas, and when I moved to Maryland and then Ohio I had to work to lose my accent because northerners thought it sounded ignorant. I still have a little bit of flavor on some words, although I no longer use regionalisms like “fillin’ station” for what most of the U.S. calls a “gas station.”

    1. An interesting modern-day American version of the story could be done. I wonder if anybody has tried?

  6. Totally! Honestly, I don’t feel the same person at all when I speak English here at home, and when I go back in France and speak French there. I have been living in the US for 20 years

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