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Get another soul, study another language

Lera Boroditsky ruminates on these questions: "Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?"  She says that "a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world."  Now, I'm not going to say there aren't some interesting (even fascinating) pieces of info in this op-ed, but really, all this emphasis on the "empirical work" that needs to be done on language is just boring. ("To demonstrate the causal role of language, what's needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.")

When I was in college I was told that studying a second language would be good for me; it would get me another mind. Our students are no longer told that. I argued with a Spanish professor once that it is good for human beings to study another language (or more, if possible) because than that person can think about different things, and even think differently.  For example, we don't have a working idea for hombre in English.  I asked her to play around with that for a while, but she claimed that wouldn't be useful; only the useful matters.  But when I made a reference to a different culture, her ears perked up (without understanding). It seems not possible for a human being to be without language, but is it correct to say, as Boroditsky does, that "human natures too can differ dramatically"?  This is imprecise on the big things, while searching for precision on the lesser matters.  Is this where the empirical leads?  I like the authors' mention of Charlemagne statement: "To have a second language is to have a second soul."  It may be better thinking about why so many native (Bulgarian, German Spanish, et al) poets learned English just to be able to translate the Poet into their language.  Never mind Heidegger and such thinking about thinking, in a language.

Discussions - 16 Comments

I don't know that the idea that language profoundly influences your thought process is "new." I lived in Saudi Arabia for several years, working with Saudis on a nearly daily basis. At the end of my work there, I could still never really fathom the thought process that went into individuals' decision-making (though I could with some confidence predict the outcome of a set of choices).

Not long before I left Saudi, I happened across an article that discussed how the Arabic language was such a profound influence on Arabic vs. culture. One example cited was the inexactitude of Arabic. Because of the subtleties of Arabic, simple declarative statements are rarely simple declarations. If a speaker is going to make a position statement, that declaration will be made in several different ways, to "clarify," if you will, what is the the true intent of the speaker. A speaker who makes a simple declaration about a serious but complex matter is likely leaving room for ambiguous interpretation, or perhaps even engaging in sarcasm.

That article (and I wish I could remember the citation... it was from many years ago) was a huge epiphany to my frequent frustrations in dealing with my local contacts. Although we discussed issues in English, the thought process on the other side was never what had been drilled into me by my American upbringing.

So, yes, I do believe that language is a profound influence on thinking. Learning another language can certainly give you some insights into how other cultures think (especially when you can begin to understand word-play). But unless you become totally immersed into that new language (and the culture that goes with it) you cannot hope to truly understand the thought process. You have been trapped by the cultural formation that went along with the language you learned from infancy.

Try this work by a psychologist who compares perceptions East and the West. But apparently his work has been qualified by findings that differences narrow between Westerners who live in Asia and Asians who live in the West:

Wow. 2010 and you've finally noticed, huh?

Isn't this sort of a chicken or egg sort of thing? Does language mold a people and culture or do people create language that expresses their culture? DavidK's Arabic example: does Arabic culture require linguistic ambiguity so that the length of a clarification indicates something about the speaker or the social situation?

I am not reading that the basics of language are different. Maybe there is a language without nouns or verbs or other parts of speech, but I haven't heard of one yet. Yes, learning another language expands vocabulary, but when the language you learn is also structured differently than your own, you have to learn those speech patterns and that has to expand the way you think. Expanding your vocabulary is the easy part of learning a language. Well, idioms can be rough. However, learning the patterns of speech and that new structure of language is what takes immersion.

The Brueghal painting is marvelous. That idea of language as the glory of men, facilitating government and trade and all aspects of society is right in it. What a great painting.

While I do agree that "cognitive science research" on language is deadly dull, there are many good books on language. My most recent favorites are Anthony Burgess, A Mouthful of Air: Language, Languages ...Especially English which is not new, but was new to me, and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English by John McWhorter, which came out a couple of years ago. Does anyone else have favorites?

Just a personal opinion about how language affects your thinking...

If the language requires precision to describe something, when you run into something new, you must expand your thinking as well as the language to encompass it.

If the language and thinking is "imprecise" you can deal with the new thing without ever expanding your worldview.

I don't think that language vs. culture is a chicken-egg thing. It's more like the language places boundary conditions on how you address challenges to your paradigm of the world. Imprecise language allows you to more easily ignore those challenges. More precise language requires better definition of the challenge, as well as more detailed rationale for either denying the challenge or incorporating it into the world-view and syntax.

I sort of like what Dave K is saying, except that I might have picked a word other than "like" if Facebook hadn't acclimated me. Of course if I say I'm lovin it, I feel like I am pitching McDonalds.

I suppose there was a time when people who spoke english who could "like" things without thinking of facebook or say that they are loving it without thinking of grabbing a Big Mac and some fries. In the same space you also have Halmark who profits from valentines and you know every kiss begins with K(ay).

I am not sure how many associations exist in the realm occupied between like and love but in 1999 Ferdinand de Saussure death was a song on the album 69 love songs by some equally obscure band named The Magnetic Fields.(This is a wikipedia link, not really a broad based association capable of being pop-cultural.)

I tend to think there are different levels of english comprehension, or facility(because I know some french). Kate, McWhorter, Burgess, English proffesors, not to mention Nietzsche(in addition to Heidegger), all trade in a slightly or vastly different realm.

English on twitter or text messaging...

"Im nt readN dat d BA6 of lang r diFrent. mayB there's a lang w/o nouns or verbs or oder parts of spEch, bt I avent hurd of 1 yet. Yes, lerning nothA lang xpands vocab, bt wen d lang u lern S also structured dffrntly thN yr own, uv 2 lern doze spEch patterns n dat hs 2 Xpnd d wA u tnk."

That is a Kate paragraph translated in text...

What is pretty funny is when I find myself trying to think/type of the right text word. What is even worse is trying to read it, because you almost have to read it out loud to figure out what it means, and you might end up sounding as if you are mocking foreigners with broken english.

uv big probs wen u let 16 y/o gals cre8 a lang.

In terms of Hombre, I know it means man in spanish, but comming at it from French I would guess that it is related to shadow. A man who casts a big shadow....of course in english to be a shadow of a man is hardly a good thing, but if things are hot enough good shade is always appreciated. To work behind the scenes, to keep to the background mysteriously, to remain unclear, a shade of gray. Hombre probably has nothing to do with shade, and something to do with a western by Paul Newman. In any case I tend to think that films and corporate advertising and slogans have a little more weight in 2010 than Nietzsche or any serious etymology work, structuralists "like" Ferdinand de Saussure, et al.

Technically the french word is Ombre not Hombre but what happens if sixteen year old girls in spain and france start texting? Assuming it has been in progress do Europeans text english for simplicity?

A couple of things on this chicken-egg business: I think it is helpful to distinguish between speech and language. When Aristotle wrote that man is a rational animal characterized by speech, he did not overlook the fact that many languages were spoken. But we should start from the fact that human beings by nature speak, and look at language as the accidental forms they use. A language points to the existence of a society which speaks it, and which certainly facilitated the development of that society, for a society depends upon communication, indeed, is constituted by communication. Animals communicate too, but our form of communication is speech, which is intelligibility, and intelligence, about the world and us.

Our power of speech is evidence of our capacity to understand and share our understanding. Even within our own minds, speech enables us to develop our understanding. I make these perhaps mundane observations because I think we are perhaps too impressed by all the different languages than the fact that they have in common the capacity for shared understanding. Certainly they reflect of understandings of the most influential people who speak and write in the language. But as Kate observes, languages have a common structure, however different each may be in the particulars. Languages may not be perfectly translatable but with our observation or knowledge of the things to which the terms in each language refer, we can bridge much of the gap, however imperfectly.

National Review recently ran an ad entitled "Learn language like a baby," which turned out to be a pitch for learning by the immersion method, which of course is exactly how we all learn to speak a language. Learning a language is natural because speech is natural. That we learn with different words in each language (although not entirely as many words have spilled over from one language--which is to say from one society--to another). English represents a special case for so many languages have fed into our massive vocabulary.

As to whether there is a point of view or "bias" in a language, or any language, is certainly interesting, and no less an influence than Bertrand Russell was convinced that our "bias" toward rational thought was established long ago by the classical Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, whose system of logic was so intertwined with grammar (subjects and predicates form a kind of sentence called a proposition) that it was difficult for new patterns of thinking to emerge---a project to which he dedicated himself. He is the father (with Alfred North Whitehead) of modern symbolic logic, which has crowded out traditional logic from most philosophy and mathematics departments. While modern logic has many uses, it is inferior for most practical purposes to traditional logic for the simple fact is that the human being sees the world and makes connections between things on the basis of what IS more so than what isn't. Or I should say on the basis that ultimately knowledge depends on the fact of intelligibility, meaning the world makes sense because we have the capacity to see it that way. The linguistic nuances in the various languages pale before this more compelling character of speech, whatever the language. Otherwise, what some Greek wrote more than 2,000 years wouldn't mean much.

I suppose Christianity says there is nothing more important than Logos, the Word, and what it means. But from that the Christian extrapolates so much.

I need coffee before I get into this. I am glad I wrote what I was thinking last night. You guys gave a wonderful payback on my investment.

Saussure, indeed. Here's Herder in 1784:

"Has a people anything dearer than the speech of its fathers? In its speech resides its whole thought-domain, its tradition, history, religion, and basis of life, all its heart and soul. To deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good.... The best culture of a people cannot be expressed through a foreign language; it thrives on the soil of a nation most beautifully, and, I may say, it thrives only by means of the nation's inherited and inheritable dialect. With language is created the heart of a people; and is it not a high concern, amongst so many peoples---Hungarians, Slavs, Rumanians, etc.---to plant seeds of well-being for the far future and in the way that is dearest and most appropriate to them?"

I learned German. Do I have to keep the soul?

Read this utterly fascinating article about what may be the world's most peculiar language, spoken by a small Amazonian tribe:

There is a part of our brains for language. There is another for reading. How did they get there? However, there is not telling how our individual brains manage language, reading, anything. I say this because it is what I am thinking about the Piraha and language as I can mainly relate it to the three children I have who were dyslexic. Each one I had to teach to read in a different way. Each reads well now, but I still wonder how they read, given what it took to teach them. My daughter couldn't read fluently until she was 11. Then she could read everything. One son grasped it while reading aloud, phonetically struggling, at age 7. "Oh, I see." and suddenly he was fluent. It was astonishing. With each I tried different techniques for teaching reading until something clicked. I have always wondered; how do they see words? Did they see them differently and something changed? Could they have read earlier if I had found the way to communicate reading to them in the way worked earlier? Or did they have to be 7, 10 and 11 before the reading parts of their brains had developed enough for them to read? The "culture" of our household was certainly the same as for the other three.

Maybe brains grasp language differently, too, and that is reflected in language between people groups. Not that it ultimately makes any difference, as with my children who all can read -- somehow. People communicate -- somehow.

That was a fascinating article.

DavidK, the more I think about it, the more I think that the way people choose to think and relate dictates the way they use language. Maybe I just prefer to see language language as a tool than to see people bound by language.

John Lewis, the Magnetic Fields are not that obscure. I have them on my Ipod. But, yes, I have to cope with students who are more fluent with" texting" spelling than with the standard type I demand for class. I have a form I created with a list of "do-nots" and one is "Do not use emoticons in your college papers." and another is, "Use real words" Why do I even have to say that to anyone? Anyway, your texting translations are really funny. Here is a question for you. It is easy enough to translate my paragraph into "texting" but could you translate de Sassure or even something from the Richard Reeb paragraph above, say the last one? The simple translates into texting, but not the complex. Given my students and their levels of reading comprehension, (well, sometimes) complex ideas written in standard English might be as different as French and as impossible for them to understand.

Richard Reeb -- the NYC subways used to have an advertisement that said, "If you can't read this, call..." and it made me laugh every time I saw it.

Don't people make connections between things based not just on what is, but also what something is not? That article about the Piraha is full of "what is not" about their language. It has the parts of speech, but "is not recursive", though the whole culture seemed to reject the concept of time, as a general rule, and I wondered what they would make of calendars and clocks and bus schedules. In addition, they seemed all about "thou shalt not" as a rule, though not in a Biblical way. Which brings me back to the idea that the way they wanted their world to be structured made them limit their language. Or else it made some things, like numbering things beyond two, seem pointless in discussion.

Language is the tool of speech. Is that right? Therefore if you have more than one language, you are expanding your capacity for speech. It's not just that you can speak to those people who use that language, either. Your own language is expanded, if it English, anyway.

When I studied art history I had to be able to read French, German and Italian and no one cared if I could speak those languages as long as I could read them. It was an academic requirement and, just maybe, unnatural.

As 2 whether there's a POV or "bias" ina lang, or Ny lang, S certainly interestin, n no less an influence thN Bertrand Russell wz convincd dat r "bias" 2wrd rational thort wz estd lng ago by d claSical Greek philosophers, esp Aristotle, who's sys of logic wz so intertwined W gramA (subjects n predicates 4m a kinda sentenC cllD a proposition) dat twas diFicult 4 nu patterns of thinkN 2 emerge---a projct 2 wich he dedic8d himself. hes d dad (with Alfred nth Whitehead) of modrn symbolic logic, wich hs crowded ot traditional logic frm most ethos n math departments. yl modrn logic hs mnE uses, itz inferior 4 most practical purposes 2 traditional logic 4t simpl fact S dat d hUmN bn sEz d wrld n maks connexions btw fings on d basis of watz mor so thN w@ isn't. Or I shd sA on d basis dat ultimately nolage Dpnds on d fact of intelligibility, meanN d wrld maks senZ coz w'v d capacity 2C it dat wA. d linguistic nuances n d various langs pale B4 dis mor compelling char of spEch, WE d lang. othwz, w@ sum Greek rOt mor thN 2,000 yrs wudnt mean mch.

I am thinking of translating Beowulf or Chaucer into a text. or "um of transl8N Beowulf N2 a txt."

Interesting that "I am thinking" becomes simply "um"...

The Wife of Bath's Prologue
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve, --
If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee, --
And alle were worthy men in hir degree.
But me was toold, certeyn, nat longe agoon is,
That sith that crist ne wente nevere but onis
To weddyng, in the cane of galilee,
That by the same ensample taughte he me
That I ne sholde wedded be but ones.
Herkne eek, lo, which a sharp word for the nones, Biside a welle, jhesus, God and man,
Spak in repreeve of the samaritan:

The Wife of Bath N TXT

xprnz, thO no authority
wr n dis wrld, wr gud nuf 4 me,
2 spk of woe dats n ll weding;
4, masters, sinC I wz 12 yrs of age,
tnx B 2 God who's 4 aye aliv,
Of husbands @ chrch door av I had 5;
4 men so mnE tyms av wedded me;
n ll wr worthy men n their Dgre.
bt sum1 tld me nt so lng ago
dat sinC r Lord, save 1s,
w%d nvr go 2 wedin (that @ Cana n Galilee),
sic, by dis same xampl, showd He me
I nvr shudve wed mor thN 1s.
Lo n bhold! w@ sharp wrds,
4t nonce, bside a wel Lord Gsus, God n mn,
Spoke n reproving d Samaritan:

I am not sure the texting version of Chaucer is easier than the original....Without a doubt the original Richard Reeb is easier to comprehend.

That is funny. In my lecture on the history of language I show, parallel on the screen, portions of Beowulf and the Prologue to Canterbury Tales in the original and in translation. I also have a voice recording of someone reading the same portion of text in the original, so my students can hear what they are seeing. Of course, who knows whether those pieces really sounded like what someone today thinks they do?

Reading a texting message on the screen, would anyone ever guess it was simple, spoken English? What is spelling has changed more than spoken language? How would we ever know?

Would you mind if I used your texting translation of Chaucer to enhance my lecture's point about changing language?

Hell, "What if" not "what is"

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