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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thoughts on Language and Thinking

Americans tend to be unilingual (monolingual?). Which means to most of us, even if we learn a foreign language in school, are shaped by a single language structure. We are completely unaware of the fact that the way our language is structured forces us to shape our thoughts a particular way.

Let me give one example that will be familiar to many of us. I took Spanish in High School. Never got very good at it, but can vaguely understand it and could probably order a respectable meal in a restaurant.

One of the most striking differences between English and Spanish is what seems to be an illogical obsession with gender in Spanish. Why are inanimate objects considered either feminine or masculine? To an English speaker it seems very strange. But if you grow up with a language that forces you to assign gender to all nouns, this will shape how you think of the world. English speakers do anthropomorphize objects and give them gender (e.g. ships being "she"), but it is sort of a quaint thing, not normal. We don't categorize tables and chairs as feminine or a dress, of all things, being masculine. Now Spanish speakers obviously don't literally consider tables and chairs female and dresses male. They aren't checking between the legs of a chair or in the folds of a dress to verify if it has balls or not. But English speakers are going to have a more developed sense of "it" as opposed to "he" and "she" than Spanish speakers and Spanish speakers are going to have a more poetic, gender shaped view of the world than English speakers. Spanish takes a greater than biological view of gender. This language structure will shape in subconscious, very subtle ways how people think and I suspect this comes out in small ways particularly in how art and poetry is expressed.

Of course I am somewhat pulling that out of my ass...not sure what kind of studies have been done. But it also links into a genuine linguistic concept. From The Horse, The Wheel and Language, an excellent book about the origins of the Indo-European language family:

...all Indo-European languages force the speaker to pay attention to tense and number when talking about an action: you must specify whether the action is past, present or future and you must specify whether the actor is singular or plural. It is impossible to use an Indo-European verb without deciding on these categories. Consequently, speakers of Indo-European languages habitually frame all events in terms of when they occurred and whether they involved multiple actors...

...when describing an event in Hopi you must use grammatical marks that specify whether you witnessed the event yourself, heard about it from someone else, of consider it to be an unchanging truth. Hopi speakers are forced by Hopi grammer to habitually frame all descriptions of reality in terms of the source and reliability of their information.




Think about what a fundamentally different way of thinking each of these language structures essentially impose on the people who grow up speaking this way. Of course everyone in both cultures is capable of thinking in terms of tense and number as well as source and reliability of info, but the language itself imposes one set of concepts on everything ever said while the other language imposes a different set.

This touches on a rather touchy aspect of linguistics. For a long time linguists hypothesized a very strong version of this idea, that language strongly shapes thought. That is largely discredited, and so the pendulum has swung the other way, so many linguists deny that language shapes thought at all. But I think there is a happy medium that is closest to the truth. In terms of how language affects thought, I mean a "weak theory," not the strong version, of this idea. From this wiki:

Current researchers such as Lera Boroditsky or Debi Roberson believe that language influences thought, but in more limited ways than the broadest early claims. Exploring these parameters has sparked novel research that increases both scope and precision of prior examinations. Current studies of linguistic relativity are neither marked by the naive approach to exotic linguistic structures and their often merely presumed effect on thought that marked the early period, nor are they ridiculed and discouraged as in the universalist period. Instead of proving or disproving a theory, researchers in linguistic relativity now examine the interface between thought (or cognition), language and culture, and describe the degree and kind of interrelatedness or influence. Following the tradition of Lenneberg, they use experimental data to back up their conclusions. These psycholinguistic studies have since gone far beyond color perception (although that is still studied), having explored motion perception, emotion perception, object representation, and memory. The gold standard of psycholinguistic studies on linguistic relativity is now finding cognitive differences in speakers of different language when no language is involved in an experimental task (thus rendering inapplicable Pinker's claim that linguistic relativity is absurd because it is "circular").[citation needed]

Recent work with bilingual speakers attempts to tease apart the effects of language from the effects of culture on various aspects of bilingual cognition including perceptions of time, space, motion, colors, and emotion.[31] Researchers have described differences between bilinguals and monolinguals in perception of color,[32] representations of time,[33] or other elements of cognition.


I think how a language is written also will shape how one things. I remember a bit of an epiphany in Japan when I got good enough reading kanji (the Chinese characters) that I could look at a sign and even if I couldn't sound out the words, I knew the meaning. At a glance I knew the meaning of a phrase even if I wasn't sure how to say it. It take a long time to learn the kanji, but once you know them reading is a different experience...more visual and impressionistic rather than carefully constructed from each letter or syllable. I realized then and there how that would shape how Japanese learn and absorb information. Now Japanese is a hybrid where they use both ideograms (the kanji that convey instantaneous, visual information) and syllabic (the hiragana that convey sounds that you have to piece together sequentially to understand). Chinese is closer to purely ideographic. So I imagine the impact is even stronger. One consequence of this kind of language is that puns become a more widespread and literary art form. When an ideogram can be pronounced more than one way, and often ideograms come to represent specific sounds as well as ideas, the scope for clever and funny word plays become almost infinite, creating a very rich language and one where humor and poetry is going to be hard to translate. You can translate the meaning, but not really the underlying, pun-like submeanings. A mundane example, which is about all I can muster. In Japan you can never but a set of cups or plates for four people. Always three or five. Four is considered an unlucky number. This is because one of the pronunciations for "four" is "shi." "Shi" is also one of the pronunciation for a kanji meaning "death." So for no reason except coincidence of sound, four comes to be associated with death and this influences how dishware is marketed.

Even with a fairly limited exposure to a language I have felt how language structure influences thought. When I was in Samoa (the independent nation formerly known as "Samoa i Sisifo" or "Western Samoa") I picked up some of the language. One of the main directional indicators used in Samoan is "towards the shore" vs. "away from the shore." Clearly a useful thing on an island that would not be so useful on a continent, so the language developed the concept which then, in turn, will shape how people conceive of the world around them. Not so much in terms of four cardinal directions (which of course they have as well) but in relation to the sea that surrounds you.

I am a biologist so for me anything to do with people boils down to something biological. We are animals like any other animal subject to the same rules. I can't help but think that in infancy, when our brains are first making critical connections (and, actually, pruning away far more connections that aren't needed), and when we are first imprinting language and then absorbing it like a sponge, our brain wiring must be shaped by the language we are first exposed to. And I would imagine someone raised bilingually from birth would have a more flexible, richer way of conceiving of the world, drawn from both languages he or she was exposed to while the brain is first being shaped.

We all think of language simply as a tool for communicating, and different languages like different tools you pick up to communicate...kind of like picking up different sized screw drivers to screw in different size screws. But language is a more powerful think in our lives than we realize, actually shaping how we conceive of the world. It is more like when given a single sized screwdriver, we then see the world as only composed of screws of that size. We know there are other sized screws, but they are less in our awareness. We HAVE to adjust the "proper" sized screw before we even notice the other sizes.

Think on that next time you hear someone advocate for "English only." A big chunk of the world grows up at least bilingual now (whether it is because they learn English as well for practical reasons, learn Arabic or Hebrew or Latin for religious reasons, or learn a native "tribal" language as well as a national language). America is somewhat behind here, and one can't help wonder if this limits our flexibility in how we think about the world.

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