Lost in Translation

“New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish”

Lost in Translation

Actually, there is nothing new about the theory that language shapes thought, but according to this article, research is starting to support this view. This goes against the prevailing theory for the last 40+ years, which argues that all languages are based on a “universal grammar” and therefore fundamentally the same. I would argue that the latter view has also been supported since the 80’s by a certain reluctance (among the academy) to ascribe “innate” differences to cultural or ethnic groups – which often happen to divide along linguistic lines.

What do you think? Do those of you who are fluent in multiple languages have a sense of “thinking differently” in different languages?

Can we distinguish between the effects of language and culture? Don’t you have to bring up your test subjects in the same environment or culture – but with different native tongues – for these results to have any experimental validity?

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8 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. “Thinking differently” – not so pronounced after the transition is complete and switch back and forth is seamless. Adaptivity is key – if you fumble, get up and go on.

    Btw, today I started some guitar exercises. I am saying this because I know some of you are fluent in guitar playing, and because I keep thinking of the analogy with practicing those paradigms. It’s infuriating when my fingers don’t move as intended, when I miss cords, when the fingers on my left hand feel as if the skin is gonna split. One thing that I noticed (not for the first time in my life) is that I need to take frequent breaks – the Zeigarnik Effect – which seems like fidgeting but motivates me better to come back to those exercises. The very position of the pick was very counterintuitive at first – the pick felt better between the tips of my thumb and middle finger.

  2. It’s an interesting article, but I have a big problem with the empiricist epistemology that underlies it. The idea that we can only know things if they’ve been proven by the scientific method is one of the fundamental errors of our age. The scientific method is wonderful in proving whether string theory is true, or whether a particular medicine works. But to apply it to the human psyche is to attempt to reduce something inherently non-empirical to numbers. I’m skeptical of any sentence that begins “research has shown,” or “the studies prove that,” or “the science tells us…”, especially when applied to something like language.
    That said, I generally assume anything Noam Chomsky says to be false, so I’m welcome any article that contradicts him.

    1. I prefer to believe that it was the journalist who misrepresented the research – for instance, that she added the ridiculous bit about English speakers always saying “John broke the vase” vs. “The vase broke.” The info about the tribe that thinks in terms of N-S, W-E (notice my own order!) is very interesting – I am glad they can still order chronologically when asked (imagine they didn’t have the chronology notion).

      As I often say – the very fact we can translate from one language to another means that there are many commonalities than differences. We should not absolutize either.

  3. This is actually not new at all. The field of cognitive linguistics was pioneered in the late 70’s early 80’s by Langacker and Lakoff. The field has been arguing the influence of linguistic metaphor on cognition all along in response to the many inconsistencies of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory. It has also always been backed by scientific research. I’m really not sure why this WSJ article presents this as incredibly new….

    1. I think this always happens when journalists discover something they didn’t know before. It has educational value though – you can’t imagine how many people don’t even think about such matters.

      Lakoff I love; Langacker I don’t know. I can google him, but please tell us some more!

  4. Rali – sorry I missed that you had cited the same article previously! Personally I found the claims in the article dubious. Certainly the article was not very well written, and contained a typical journalistic gloss of a complex subject. Nevertheless, as I commented in the post, I find the whole experimental method of this research a bit suspect.

    If I had been raised in a society where it was imperative that I know the cardinal directions at all times, in English, I’ll bet that I would get pretty good at it. Eventually over time, if the people around me were just as adept, we might stop using the terms “left” and “right” as being gratuitous, and instead just use N-S-E-W. So it seems to me that culture is equally – if not more – likely to shape language than the other way around. Does anyone know what the counter-argument is to the above?

    I understand that the Indonesian language has strong sense of social hierarchy embedded in it. I am told that the differences in usage when addressing a “superior” versus addressing an “inferior” are so great that they are practically different dialects. This seems a prime example for how language could shape one’s view of the world. But, how long would this feature of the language last if the hierarchies were to suddenly disappear in the society itself? My guess is, not very long – maybe a generation. And deeply engrained social hierarchies are alive and well in many societies that have no such distinction in the language.

    To reply to another comment – I am always surprised by the ire that Chomsky’s name inspires. People who disagree with his political views tend to make ad hominem attacks on his linguistics. The two have nothing to do with each other. I tend to agree with (much of) his politics, and I have no idea if “universal grammar” is a valid concept or not – I don’t pretend to know enough about linguistics to make an objective evaluation.

    Finally, I am still curious if anyone has any personal experience to bear on the topic of how they may “think differently” when thinking in different languages. I am not fluent enough in any other language to really think in it, so I wonder what those who are experience. Do you notice differences?

    Studying Greek grammar has made me more aware of how I use English, but I can’t say my limited exposure and mediocre accomplishment has had any affect on my world view 🙂

  5. And furthermore, about the whole “John broke the vase” vs. “the vase broke itself” business. The need to name the agent when using the active voice in English may indeed make the English speakers more likely to be able to recall the name of the agent when quizzed later. But does this mean the English speakers have a “different sense of blame” than Spanish and Japanese speakers?

    As with all statistical research, the question you ask shapes the results. Apparently, after hearing the story, the subjects were asked “Who broke the vase?”. The researchers then extrapolated, based on ability to recall the vase breaker’s name, that English speakers have a “different sense of blame” than English or Japanese speakers. Instead of extrapolating, let’s ask the question directly: “Who is to blame for breaking the vase, John or the vase itself?”. I assert that this question would produce the result that Spanish, Japanese and English speakers have an identical “sense of blame”.

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