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Archive for September, 2010

What if you thought in another language?

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Would it affect the way you think?

There was an interesting article about whether or not our language affects how we think, in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. What their researched showed was that fundamentally all cultures think the same way, but there are many differences in how our language influences our thoughts. The meanings and feelings we attach to words can be much different between languages.

For example, in Spanish, everything is either feminine or masculine.  When talking about a friend, they must be described as either “el amigo” (masculine) or “la amiga” (feminine). But in English, if I said I went to the movies with my friend, you wouldn’t know if it was a male or female. So, the word in Spanish has a lot more meaning. Maybe we English-speakers don’t like to “tell all”.

To examine if attaching a gender to words makes a person think differently, they did various experiments. One test asked speakers to assign characteristics to things, like bridges, clocks and the world. Depending on which gender the language applied to that word, determined the characteristics that the speaker thought the object had. For instance, bridges (a masculine word in Spanish) were considered “manly” to Spanish-speakers and “elegant and slender” to Germans (a female word in German).  It would be interesting to know if these differences have affected the design of bridges around the world.

Another experiment further proved that our language can influence how we think about things, by asking participants to give voices to inanimate objects in a cartoon. People who spoke “gendered” languages applied female voices to feminine things (like spoon in Spanish -“la cuchara”) and male voices to masculine things (like fork -“el tenedor”).

Another area of difference in speech is when talking about location and directions. In English, we use right, left, in front, behind, etc. We only use geographical terms when we’re reading a map or out hiking with a compass. Yet, an Australian aboriginal language (and many others across the globe) only uses north, south, east and west when talking about location or directions. They would say: “My wallet is in my southern pocket.” Unless we are standing there with our trusty compass, we’re going to have some trouble understanding which one he’s talking about.

All of these differences in language can also be attributed to our culture; as language and culture are intertwined. The meanings and feelings attached to words, how we communicate and also our beliefs have been instilled in us since we were born. The thoughts just come naturally to us, because it’s all we’ve ever known. Just as the people who think in a geographical language can’t explain how they instantly know which way is north, a Spanish-speaker can’t explain how they instinctively know a word is feminine.

It’s difficult to know exactly how significantly these differences affect our decision making, our opinions, misunderstandings with others, etc. But we do know that there are hidden and visible differences among languages of which we need to be cognizant. Until we know more, the best way to understand another language is to first take a look at our own.

What do you say so naturally, that you may be misunderstood by someone who speaks another language? Do you attach meanings or feelings to words that could be completely different to someone else? Maybe you even have differences in the language of your own “family” culture. It’s interesting to explore if your language affects how you think.

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