Despite their Whorfian tang I enjoyed these reflections on language learning from Anaïs Nin. They’re from A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars and Interviews of Anaïs Nin, edited by Evelyn J. Hinz (1975):
Language to me is like the discovery of a new world, really a new state of consciousness. A new word to me was a new sensation. Reading the dictionary, anything at all, can add not only to your knowledge but also to your perceptions.
Do new languages bestow new states of consciousness? The idea that bilingual (and multilingual) people inhabit different personalities in different languages has much anecdotal evidence to support it – many bilinguals report feeling like different people when they speak different tongues.
Researchers who have studied the phenomenon are equivocal about its implications – it probably has far less to do with grammar than with the environments and cultures associated with the languages.
Psycholinguistics professor and author François Grosjean, for example, has observed that “what is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language”.
Another passage from Nin looks at vocabulary and the use of particular words in a new language:
I remember I used the word ‘rutilant’, and the American critics all fell on me and said: ‘Why do you use such fancy words. Why not just say gold?’ Well, rutilant isn’t gold. It’s red and gold mixed. So you see, you discover a word and that gives you a new perception too. We mustn’t disparage the language and say: ‘Don’t use the fancy words.’ That word meant exactly what I meant: gold and red mixed. Of course, that’s a foreigner’s advantage. As a foreigner, you explore the language because you don’t take it for granted. You have to study it. So I made more discoveries, because it was new and I was driven on to find all the new words. And then you’re amazed that people don’t use them all.
Rutilant is a word I seldom see. It first appeared in Middle English courtesy of Latin rudilant– “glowing red”, from rutilus “ruddy, reddish”. Rutilous means more or less the same thing, but occurs even less often.
Nin’s comment sent me to various dictionaries to see if they formed an agreeable consensus on rutilant’s meaning. They kind of don’t: it could be “bright red” (AHD), “having a reddish glow” (M-W), “glowing or glittering with red or golden light” (ODO), “of a reddish colour or glow” (Collins). Semantically it’s not so much specified as smudged.
The book, by the way, featured in a book spine poem here a couple of years ago. I had only dipped into it then, but recently read it through.