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Language and Globalization

August 24, 2010


Confucius reportedly wrote, “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” In other words, language and its skillful use matter. Yet, with so many languages spoken throughout the world, the chance of people misunderstanding one another when communicating across cultures is amazingly high. An article in the Wall Street Journal asserts, “New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world” [“Lost in Translation,” by Lera Boroditsky, 30 July 2010]. Boroditsky is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. If what Boroditsky claims is true, the potential consequences are profound. I believe that most people are struck by the fact that facial expressions reveal a person’s emotions in the same way regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, or culture. As someone once said, “There are thousands of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.” Boroditsky, however, is asserting that words, unlike expressions, don’t necessarily reveal exactly what people are thinking (i.e., the way words are used in a culture can color how people think). She writes:

“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? Take ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a…’ Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say ‘sat’ rather than ‘sit.’ In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) change the verb to mark tense. In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall. In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you’d use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you’d use a different form. Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages? These questions touch on all the major controversies in the study of mind, with important implications for politics, law and religion. Yet very little empirical work had been done on these questions until recently. The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world.”

Some analysts have claimed that men and women think differently (e.g., John Gray’s assertion that “Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus”) and that makes them use language differently. Thomas Hardy wrote, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Boroditsky is saying that language itself can trump gender and genetics. She continues:

“The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that ‘to have a second language is to have a second soul.’ But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky’s theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don’t really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking. The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny. Instead, as linguists probed deeper into the world’s languages (7,000 or so, only a fraction of them analyzed), innumerable unpredictable differences emerged.”

Boroditsky admits that “just because people talk differently doesn’t necessarily mean they think differently.” However, the more we learn about the mind, the more we come to realize that people do change how they think depending on the culture and circumstances in which they find themselves (for more on this phenomena, read my posts entitled Is Google Rewiring our Brains?, The Amazing Mind, and The Mind — it is a-changin’). Boroditsky continues:

“In the past decade, cognitive scientists have begun to measure not just how people talk, but also how they think, asking whether our understanding of even such fundamental domains of experience as space, time and causality could be constructed by language. For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don’t use terms like ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, ‘There’s an ant on your southwest leg.’ To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, ‘Where are you going?’, and an appropriate response might be, ‘A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?’ If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello. About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.”

In a couple of past posts [The Power of Words and The Power of Language], I’ve discussed how powerful words can be and how important languages are for preserving history and revealing insights about our past. As Ralph Wald Emerson wrote, “Language is the archives of history.” Boroditsky’s claims make us wonder if we can really understand history from dead written languages if we don’t know how those languages made people think. She continues with her story of the Pormpuraawans:

“Differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions. So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.”

You have to admit that the tale being told by Boroditsky is fascinating, even if you aren’t particularly interested in languages. If you are involved in international business or diplomacy, however, you would be wise to become interested. Boroditsky moves from a discussion of space and time to causality:

“English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like ‘John broke the vase’ even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say ‘the vase broke itself.’ Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others. In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn’t normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn’t encode or remember the agent as well.”

If you ever find yourself in need of a witness following an accident in which the other party was at fault, my recommendation is to find an English speaker who might better remember that the car didn’t crash itself! On the other hand, if the accident was your fault, that Japanese tourist who saw the whole thing might be your best friend. Boroditsky explains why it matters how a witness talks about an event:

“In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson’s infamous ‘wardrobe malfunction’ (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase ‘ripped the costume’ while the other said ‘the costume ripped.’ Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read ‘ripped the costume’ blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.”

Boroditsky goes on to explain that language can also affect visual and mathematical skills. She explains:

“Russian speakers, who make an extra distinction between light and dark blues in their language, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue. The Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon in Brazil, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities. And Shakespeare, it turns out, was wrong about roses: Roses by many other names (as told to blindfolded subjects) do not smell as sweet.”

If you doubt that last statement, read my blog entitled A Rose by Any Other Name Might Smell as Sweet, but Would It Sell? Consider the Slimehead. Boroditsky asks, “Does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?” She writes:

“Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent and hone to suit our needs. Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn’t tell us whether it’s language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what’s needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition. One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. And if you take away people’s ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically, sometimes making them look no smarter than rats or infants. (For example, in recent studies, MIT students were shown dots on a screen and asked to say how many there were. If they were allowed to count normally, they did great. If they simultaneously did a nonlinguistic task—like banging out rhythms—they still did great. But if they did a verbal task when shown the dots—like repeating the words spoken in a news report—their counting fell apart. In other words, they needed their language skills to count.) All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.”

As you are aware, new words are invented everyday — especially in the English language. There is a reason that new words are created. Paul Tillich, for example, reminds us, “Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” Boroditsky concludes:

“Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak. The next steps are to understand the mechanisms through which languages help us construct the incredibly complex knowledge systems we have. Understanding how knowledge is built will allow us to create ideas that go beyond the currently thinkable. This research cuts right to the fundamental questions we all ask about ourselves. How do we come to be the way we are? Why do we think the way we do? An important part of the answer, it turns out, is in the languages we speak.”

I’m interested in language and in the relationships between words because, at Enterra Solutions®, we use an ontology to help us map important relationships that make business processes more efficient and effective. Without language it would be impossible to do what we do on behalf of our clients. Language gaffes make us laugh (e.g., Jay Leno continues to draw in an audience with his “Headlines” segment every Monday) and people are often judged on how well they use language. I agree with Boroditsky that language is a gift — one that is too often underappreciated.

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