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Language and Learning

April 30, 2008


My company, Enterra Solutions®, like all companies, uses some descriptive phrases that it has trademarked to help explain what the company does as well as differentiate its products and offerings. Names of things have been important since the beginning of recorded history (and probably long before that). It comes as no surprise, for example, that one of the first things that the Bible records is Adam naming the things around him: “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.” [Genesis 2:20]. A new study has shown that people learn faster when they can name (or label) objects which they are studying [“When Language Can Hold the Answer,” by Christine Kenneally, New York Times, 22 April 2008].

“Faced with pictures of odd clay creatures sporting prominent heads and pointy limbs, students at Carnegie Mellon were asked to identify which ‘aliens’ were friendly and which were not. The students were not told that the aliens fell naturally into two groups, although the differences were subtle and not easy to describe. Some had somewhat lumpy, misshapen heads. Others had smoother domes. After students assigned each alien to a category, they were told whether they had guessed right or wrong, learning as they went that smooth heads were friendly and lumpy heads were not.”

Not privy to all of the study’s details, it sounds like it drew on people’s pre-conceived biases about what is beautiful (therefore likeable) — i.e., smooth things — and what is ugly or misshapen (therefore scary) — i.e., lumpy things. The study, however, was about the speed of learning not about prejudice.

“The experimenter, Dr. Gary Lupyan, who is now doing postdoctoral research at Cornell, added a little item of information to one test group. He told the group that previous subjects had found it helpful to label the aliens, calling the friendly ones ‘leebish’ and the unfriendly ones ‘grecious,’ or vice versa. When the participants found out whether their choice was right or wrong, they were also shown the appropriate label. All the participants eventually learned the difference between the aliens, but the group using labels learned much faster. Naming, Dr. Lupyan concluded, helps to create mental categories.”

For those tasked with explaining complex ideas, it is helpful to find a descriptive name that can serve as shorthand for the entire concept. During the Cold War, for example, the term “mutually assured destruction” or “MAD” used to describe a sophisticated national security strategy. The name was so descriptive, however, that it was easy for those discussing strategy to grasp the concept from the mere mention of its name. Advertisers are always looking for a catch phrase that will capture the imagination and differentiate their products from others. Authors look for book or article titles that will grab readers’ interest. Although we can appreciate the importance of language, we don’t fully understand the relationship between language and reality.

“The finding [that using labels helps to create mental categories] may not seem surprising, but it is fodder for one side in a traditional debate about language and perception, including the thinking that creates and names groups. In stark form, the debate was: Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world? The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.”

Kenneally reports that the traditional debate has not been about the subjective friendliness of fictitious aliens, but about simple things like color.

“The traditional subject of the tug of war over language and perception is color. Because languages divide the spectrum differently, researchers have asked whether language affected how people see color. English, for example, distinguishes blue from green. Most other languages do not make that distinction. Is it possible that only English speakers really see those colors as different? Past investigations have had mixed results. Some experiments suggested that color terms influenced people in the moment of perception. Others suggested that the language effect kicked in only after some basic perception occurred. The consensus was that different ways to label color probably did not affect the perception of color in any systematic way.”

Other studies, however, have demonstrated that language can help with learning under certain conditions when subtle differences in objects are involved.

“Last year, Lera Boroditsky and colleagues published a study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that language could significantly affect how quickly perceptions of color are categorized. Russian and English speakers were asked look at three blocks of color and say which two were the same. Russian speakers must distinguish between lighter blues, or goluboy, and darker blues, siniy, while English speakers do not have to, using only ‘blue’ for any shade. If the Russians were shown three blue squares with two goluboy and one siniy, or the other way around, they picked the two matching colors faster than if all three squares were shades from one blue group. English makes no fundamental distinction between shades of blue, and English speakers fared the same no matter the mix of shades. In two different tests, subjects were asked to perform a nonverbal task at the same time as the color-matching task. When the Russians simultaneously carried out a nonverbal task, they kept their color-matching advantage. But when they had to perform a verbal task at the same time as color-matching, their advantage began to disappear. The slowdown suggested that the speed of their reactions did not result just from a learned difference but that language was actively involved in identifying colors as the test was happening.”

For those involved with the visual display of information upon which they expect others to act, these studies could prove valuable. It could change how they display information, how they teach operators to understand what they are seeing, and what they expect to do with the information once it is provided to them. The last study would indicate, for example, that you want people to carry out non-verbal actions in order to speed response.

“Two other recent studies also demonstrated an effect of language on color perception and provided a clue as to why previous experimental results have been inconclusive. In The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Kay of the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley and colleagues hypothesized that if language is dominant on the left side of the brain, it should affect color perception in the right visual field. (The right visual field is connected to the left side of the brain, and vice versa.) English-speaking subjects were shown a ring of 12 small squares that were all the same color except an odd one on the left or the right. If the odd square was shown to the right visual field and it was from a completely different color category in English, like a green square compared to the ring of blue squares, then subjects were quick to identify it as different. If the odd square shown to the right visual field was the same basic color as the ring of squares, perhaps just being a different shade of blue, subjects were not as fast to recognize the difference. If the odd square was shown to the left visual field, it didn’t matter if it was a different color or only a different shade. The extent to which language affected color perception depended on the side of the brain being used.”

These studies could also affect information visualization. It suggests that displays relying primarily on color differentiation to provide information to observers should probably be placed on the right side of the observer station. This could be important in any situation when time is of the essence in initiating a response.

“Language also has a significant role in seeing and remembering where objects are in space. Dr. Dedre Gentner at Northwestern and her colleagues conducted experiments on the spatial reasoning of hearing children and children who ‘home-sign.’ Home-signers have hearing parents, but they are congenitally deaf and have never been taught a sign language, according to Susan Goldin-Meadow, an expert in homesign. The gestural language they develop is invented solely by themselves. In the past, Dr. Gentner and her colleagues had observed that children who home-sign did not appear to invent gestures for locations spontaneously. The children were shown two side-by-side boxes. Internally, each box was divided in three. In each space was a card. During each trial, the experimenter took a card from the first box and showed the child that it had a special star on the back. Replacing it in the first box in the same space, the experimenter asked the child to find where the special card would be in the second box. Essentially, the children were asked to map the position of the target card in the first box to the same position in the second. The researchers found that children without words for spatial relationships, whether young or home-signers, had much more trouble finding the special card in the second box than older hearing children who had learned the relevant words. For young hearing children, exposure to spatial language in the experiment strongly influenced the success rate. If the experimenter used spatial terms when speaking to a child, saying, ‘I’m putting the card in the top’ (or ‘middle’ or ‘bottom’), as opposed to, ‘I’m putting the card here,’ the children were much likelier to find the correct spot in the second box.”

For companies doing business around the world, especially if it involves training, understanding the nuances of the local language could be important in ensuring that the training is effective. In circumstances where local languages lack a necessary nuance, participants may need to be introduced to subtleties using new words to help them learn faster and remember longer. On the other hand, they may not need such help.

“There is other evidence that a lack of spatial language is not a handicap in solving spatial problems. In 2006, scientists published an experiment that investigated the ability of the Amazonian Munduruku tribe to understand and manipulate geometric relationships for which their language has no words. The Munduruku performed about the same as Americans whose language is rich with spatial terms.”

In other words, there was a difference between the limitations of language and the mechanisms of thought (which suffered from no such limitations). The difference to a businessman, however, is significant. When one person has to explain concepts to another person, it helps if they have a shared frame of reference. Language can help create that shared space. Since the heart of Enterra Solutions’ products and offerings are automated rule sets, understanding language and word relationships are extremely important for our rule writers. Fortunately, once those relationships are translated into code, they can bridge most of the language barriers because of the universal nature of math. Language has been around for tens of thousands of years, yet we are still learning about how it works.

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