Sunday, November 8, 2009

How language affects thinking

Does language guide the way we observe and understand the world, or only the way we express what we see and know out loud?

Sometimes I get stuck pondering these questions. One odd language distinction that seems to come up often is the difference between squirrels and chipmunks, and the fact that most Spanish speakers won't differentiate between the two (saying both ardillas). Perhaps when I see one of those animals, I think about them differently based on my native language’s necessity to differentiate between them. My culture and language guide me into interpreting what I see distinctly. Seeing a squirrel, I would think of Rocky, or the Sahne Nuss character, but never Alvin or Chip & Dale, as a Spanish speaker might.

Or how about the use of Se me olvidó (basically, it was forgotten to me). This usually comes up when I’m eager to put the blame on my boyfriend for whatever HE forgets by complete fault of his own, but the way this expression uses the passive voice almost gives him an excuse by taking the blame off the subject. I often wonder if the way our languages put emphasis on different parts of the phrase actually changes our perception of how this event happens, perhaps saying this phrase makes a person feel more like it was out of their control.

I saved an interesting article by Lera Boroditsky that discusses some theories surrounding the first lines of my post. She acknowledges speakers of various languages have to encode different details of their experiences in order to verbalize them (sometimes gender, quantity, how you acquired the information, time/tense, whether the action was completed). However, the question remained of whether the reflection of something in speech actually means that people are interpreting or thinking differently, rather than merely saying something differently.

One very convincing example that Boroditsky gives in showing that language may indeed affect the way we understand the world are her experiments and research with the Kuuk Thaayorre aboriginal community in Austrailia. She said that instead of relative reference frames used in English like right and left, they use absolute reference frames such as North, South, East and West. This means that to speak these people must be spatially aware. In tests, they would always arrange events along a timeline going East to West, regardless of where they were facing, which also implies they must have always known which way they were situated during the test (as I am sure many English and Spanish speakers normally wouldn't. As someone who is fairly oriented this way, I know when people gesture to point they are nearly always pointing in the wrong direction, both for cardinal and relative directions).

I remember first writing about how language relates to time and how people interpret the world as part of one of my first papers in Chile, which I did about an indigenous group in the north, the Aymara, who see the past in front of them, and the future behind them, as their language does. Whereas in English and the majority of other major languages, we “face” the future, the past is “behind you,” and you “look forward to what the future holds.” However, the Aymara would say their future is behind their back and they are looking upon their past, so what they see in front of them they know to be true because it has already happened. An interesting quote reasoned that the Aymara had been described as really patient, because “'if you can't see the future,' says Marta Hardman, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, 'there seems less point in planning.'”

If you’re interested, this NPR story and the articles above also talk about many other examples, such as whether languages talk about duration in terms of length (“long time”) or quantity (“much time, big time”), our ability to distinguish colors based on our languages division into names, and also some discussion and tests about Shakespeare’s quote, “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

Because of these differences, in thinking of gender, time, etc.. learning a new language in some sense also means learning a new way of thinking.

I thought one of the more interesting topics were tests done about how language changes the way we think based on the assignment of gender, because thats something my mind has struggled with in going from English to Spanish. Boroditsky said in art 85% of the time things are represented as male or female depending on the concept’s Gender, (e.g. Russian painters painted death as a woman because the word is feminine, and German painters painted death as a man) and in the NPR clip it mentioned that people would have trouble conceptualizing an object as having a female name if the object is assigned male gender in the language. People also assign masculine or feminine characteristics depending on the gender given in their language, suggesting speakers of different languages have entirely different perceptions of objects. The NPR link has an excellent discussion of this involving the word bridge in Spanish (m) and German (f).

According to studies, this also happen when a person begins learning a new language with gender assignments.

This is one of the ones that seems to affect me the most because gender is something I understand in Spanish, but I still make mistakes. Not having a native ability nor all words so firmly ingrained, a reverse factor occurs in which the way I see the world shapes how I try to form the language. One of the reasons I make these mistakes is when the way I interpret and categorize the word clashes with the way Spanish labels gender (that is, when I'm not just taking a shot in the dark, haha). Perhaps as words and their genders become more stable in my mind, they begin to take on a slightly different meaning.

For instance a few times I have over-generalized and tried to make all words referring to men, with masculine word patterns, even though many words such as el artista, el policia, el dentista, etc.. don't follow that pattern and are actually correct. This is also why its difficult to learn words like el poema, el clima, and la radio (where the article doesn’t seem to have the same gender as the noun it precedes). Or words that might seem to portray opposite genders than what the object refers to. One of the funniest examples I can think of that clashes in my mind is la tulita (slang for “the penis,” but its feminine).

In fact one of my nicknames for my boyfriend means "little baby" in Spanish. But at first I felt silly using the word guaguita for a male, which is feminine regardless of the actual gender of the referent, and started jokingly changing the ending to a form which typically is used with masculine words. It stuck, hence ending up with the nickname guaguito.


Dana Elizabeth said...

awesome post Lydia. I find myself constantly thinking about how language forms a culture and how we form our own language. I heard from someone, I am not sure if its true that in german the verb is in the end so you have to pay attention until the very end of the sentence to know what is going to happen.

I find it absolutly fastinanting...can't spell that word...the part about seeing the past forward and the future behind, it twists my brain a bit, but I like it. I was talking with a german man once and he said USAians see their path and A then B then C very linear, where for example Kenyans (we were in kenya at the time) see maybe ABC and F but all at the same time.

I also remember, thinking back to the spanish language, that in Nicaragua I never used more than the present simple and past to communicate, granted I had just learned spanish. There was no subjuntive and rarely much use of the future, because it just wasn't necesary in their day to day lives.

I have a love hate relationship with modern language too, the idea that technology is forming so much of our language and concepts about comunication. I throw around the verb "to facebook someone" so much that I don't realize how this is new vocab word develoved within the last 5 years that has changed the form of friendship and personal communication ademas de the English language!

Finally, (your post really excited me) Alexis last night commented on how he wanted to speak English with his own voice, the voice he uses in Spanish, and while I am trying to give him the verbs and vocab to speak like he wants, there are just so many things that don't work and it frustrates him. I remember the same feeling two years ago and now I feel that a part of my personality changes when I speak spanish. I enter my spanish identity which has to be slightly different to use spanish and not just stay in the spanglish world. I love what language can do with just a few simple words...thank you for these links and this post!

Abby said...

Super interesting post! Sara showed me that article you talk about awhile ago and I found it fascinating. These are things I think about a lot. Thanks for writing this.

bcnnow said...

very good post -
another thing that is striking is the spanish word "esperar" which in many languages (like in French, and my native German) describe completley differnt actions from my point of view: to hope, to wait and to expect. It has been said that this says a lot about how spanish speakers see the world. So waiting for something ALWAYS implies some kind of hope! And to expect someone to do something, well you can HOPE and WAIT, but never EXPECT only (as the two former are always implied...) Thanks a lot for the link, too - there was one information in the link that really was new to me:

And that is how you would describe an object according to its gender - this is amazing! I never thought about it, but it's true - because for me as a german-speaker an object "has" its gender - and the fact that the Spaniards would use the "wrong" gender, does not really change my pereception of it...:)

lydia said...

Thanks for the comments guys, I think the topic is super interesting!

(Dana, and possibly the other two depending on how long you were on the page, I made a couple edits as you were posting because I posted this at like 4:30 am and noticed it wasn't quite as coherent as I intended haha)

Dana- I think the time part is really interesting. Its actually quite hard to conceptualize how its even possible to see time differently than I do, though perhaps with a language structure that allows it, my thinking would also be able to adapt. You know, the Nicaragua example is interesting, because I also notice that there are certain forms that are used to varying degrees in different regions and I wonder how much of that is language to thought, or the reverse thought to language. In Chile people often avoid using the subjunctive in ways I'd learned to in Spanish class, some people might instead use the present or infinitive in certain cases.

I know what Alexis means, its frustrating. That actually relates somewhat to my next post (haha, this was twice as long and I had to break it up!)

bcnnow- excellent example of "esperar," I love it. There are many words I come across in teaching in which I try to make clear the connotations of a certain word. I have noticed sometimes when I have obviously misunderstood a word or its connotation (not a real example, but perhaps I would say I was waiting for some bad news when I don't actually mean I'm hoping for it.)

I think its probably more on a subconscious level and difficult to test yourself, but you would probably find it interesting to compare the qualities of some words which have opposite genders in German and Spanish, as in the bridge example

Maeskizzle said...

Interesting post (and comments). I find this topic fascinating as well.

First, with regards to "Se me olvidó". When I was in Spain (Galicia), I had a grammar class and our teacher (a Galician, obviously) taught us those "se" expressions one day, like, se me olvidó, se me quedó, se me fue, etc., and she called this use of "se", "se irresponsable". hahaha The Gallegans seemed to be a very responsible people and apparently the irresponsibility of this grammatical structure was not lost on my grammar teacher.

And I had a bit of a language-learning epiphany with your post. I've read an article about the masculine/feminine in languages and the aborigines and how they order things...there was just an article on it in Time magazine. But reading about it again, in your post, I thought, probably one of the easier ways to remember whether an object is feminine or masculine in Spanish, is giving it a sex. I've never done that before. I've always just relied, on the basic rules, and memory for the exceptions, but I always forget whether "puente" is masculine or femenine. (I just looked it up and it's masculine.) I'm going to try to remember it with masculine attributes, like black and big, for example. You know, using association, to help the memory. That must be what native Spanish speakers do unconsciously when learning their language.

lydia said...

Did you click on the NPR link? It uses the puente example and it sounds like what you said is exactly what people must do. They said puentes were sturdy, big, strong, etc.. (compared to the German feminine word which was described as elegant, slender, pretty etc) haha.

That would be a good strategy for the words that always cause me a problem.

I should read that Time article. Ill look around.

Annje said...

Very interesting topic. After my own experience learning a second language, which I have spoken for years now, I do wonder though, how well someone from outside can really interpret how another culture/language views the world. I am thinking of those first Whorfian theories that claimed that the Inuit had all these different words/concepts for snow and that they obviously thought about snow differently... well, eventually it was discovered that they don't really have more than other languages or that it doesn't really reflect how they think about snow, it was kind of a misinterpretation (sorry, I don't have all the details top roperly explain).

I wonder if part of your question has to do with the idea of schema: a mental representation of concepts (i.e. the squirrel/chipmunk). Because Spanish-cultures probably only recently encountered chipmunks (past century), they just added it to their concept of "ardilla" (though certainly they must recognize the physical differences--but maybe it is like saying "dog" a concept that umbrellas a variety of breeds and dogs that look quite different) It is related to language in that your language will have words that represent what your culture knows about the world, when confronted with something new, you can either adopt a new word or add the new thing to an already existing/similar concept. Does that make any sense?

I love the "esperar" example, that has always perplexed me. And the representations of death based on the grammatical gender is fascinating too.

I have often thought about what it would be like to just have gender ingrained, you just know it intuitively. It bothered me for a while (not bother exactly, confused maybe) that puente is (m.) but fuente is (f.)... or the words like agua/alma/ala/azucar which are (f.) but take a (m.) article (i.e. el agua helada)

Anonymous said...

the whole snow thing is interesting. i´ve never read about HOW he claimed they thought differently, but i have heard about the doubt that his theory and the number of words is true. english actually has various words to describe snow. i think its obvious that different cultures will need more words to differentiate between things they actually encounter and less for things they never encounter. in the end i think its similar to the squirrel thing
actually i wasnt aware squirrels existed here either (probably should´ve said chilean spanish speakers instead of spanish speakers) but it is something they encounter in the media... i was just using it as a broad example of when a word brings up a different concept in my mind than a someone elses because of language. there is a way to differentiate between them in spanish but nobody really knows or uses it. despite the differences people are always really surprised when i tell them that the two animals arent the same (i´ve even brought pictures and been like... see? stripes vs bushy tail!)

yeah, saying ¨these questions^was very broad and i ponder a lot of related concepts. i ended up trying to narrow down the post a bit but its still pretty jumbled and perhaps encompassing multiple concepts...luckily is just a blogpost and not an academic paper haha.

of course i also quesiton how an outsider can interpret the world differently, but i think examples like the tests of chronological order and the fact that those people in austrailia always knew where they were is pretty good insight into measuring how this might be possible, also the examples like the representation of death. i think its quite interesting they are discovering some ways to possibly test it in which something is manifested that can more or less be analyzed, at the very least they´re exploring some interesting cultural differences whether or not it proves something.

Anonymous said...

quesiton how an outsider can ·MEASURE IF SOMEONE DOES· interpret the world differently

(this computer is making me really struggle hah)

Emily said...

Ok, I'm just responding to the very first line of this post because otherwise this comment would go on forever!

YES, language guides what we are capable of thinking, not only what we are capable of expressing. I took a linguistics course in college about the evolution of language, and it was interesting to learn that human evolution was really affecting by becoming physically capable of speech. Certain concepts (like hunting styles that require spoken coordination, for example) just would not have become possible, regardless of how big our ancestors' brains got, without the capacity of speech.

Rodolfo and I were also discussing this recently in regard to friends who had a poor education and don't have the words to express themselves in deeper conversation. I realize that sometimes it's just that they lack the words, but at the same time there are all sorts of complicated concepts that I learned because I learned the word for them. I don't think my brain would have just come up with everything in picture form if I'd never had to learn the words (the only example coming to my mind is "schadenfreude" which of course is German, but the principle holds true). Interesting post!

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