June 18, 2009

Could you repeat please?

A friend sent me a link to a scientific article on how people who speak different languages actually do think differently. Makes perfect sense to me and to anyone who has lived an extended period of time in another country and language.

It seems that the language you learn as a child trains you to pay more attention a particular set of things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

We Americans, for example never learned to pay paticular attention to whether a chair is feminine or masculine -- and it shows when we occasionally slip up on the gender front, even after years and years of speaking Italian.

Russians instead do not have one word that covers all the shades that an English speaker would consider to fall under the word "blue". Instead they have two words --one for light blue (goluboy)and another for dark blue (siniy) which makes them quicker at distinguishing the two than their American counterparts.

To make her point that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think, she gives the example of a small Aboriginal community in Australia that talk about space in terms of north, south, east, west instead of left, right , forward so they might say, "Hey Joe, there is an ant on your southwest leg", or "Move the cup to the north northeast a little bit". Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how these people think about space spill over into time, numbers, kinship relations and even emotions.

Another example was in the area of gender. In Spanish a key is feminine while in German it is masculine -- giving the object itself very different attributes in people's minds. The Spanish consider a key to be, "golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny and tiny", whereas the Germans used adjectives such as, "hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated and useful" to describe the same item. Curious indeed!

Click HERE for the link if you would like to know more.

Perhaps Italians are so good at dealing with ambiguity because their language allows for endless sentences that never clearly nominate subjects and objects. "Who exactly is responsible for what" is the translator's daily struggle. The answer, as we have seen, is in the context, or as an Italian language teacher once told me, "musicality gives meaning."

Thanks Gillian for passing this along!

a domani,


Fern Driscoll said...

I LOVE learning about things like this... it's like the Dutch having about 17 different words for 'canal.' It's easy to understand why, but so much less obvious how it affects our thinking - and I suppose it's completely ingrained in us when we're young. Puts one a little in mind of racism, too - lots to think about here - thanks for a great post.

Fern Driscoll said...

PS - could you put the link in? I'd love to read the article... Thanks!

Elizabeth Abbot said...

Hi Fern,
I have the link up now -- had some technical issues yesterday. Coming soon some interesting stuff from the world of behavioral economics...

ReSet Coach said...

I found your blog through another ICA blog (marketing mentor), I wanted to say I really enjoyed your posts and am looking forward to more "moments",

ReSet Coach