This weeks theme: does languages effect the way we think? The mainstream press produced a bunch of articles on this subject recently. I have seen many ways that learning Japanese and Chinese fundamentally changed my personality, so my gut tells me this type of research is heading in the right direction.
Language makes us who we are
The WSJ had a nice piece on how languages effect the way people see their worlds by Lera Brododitsky, a Stanfard psychology professor. She gives a great example comparing English with Japanese and Spanish. To sum it up:
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…
Colors depend on the language you speak
A few months ago Boing Boing wrote about how one’s native language effects the colors one sees. One example of this is the difference between red and pink in English and Chinese. In English, pink and red are distinct colors, but in Chinese, they pink 分红 is described as a shade of red. I’ve always had trouble with the Chinese concept of red, which not only includes pink, but also many shades of orange as well.
Time IS relative
And last but not least, The NYTimes magazine featured an article on the subject. It’s a long article, but definitely worth checking out. (I could probably write multiple posts about it.) The author also published a book on the subject “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages“. I definitely plan on reading it.
Of course it has some examples using Chinese.
If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined,have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.
Is this why many of my Chinese friends have poor concepts of time? More times than I’d like to remember, a friend told me, “我马上来。” or “我一会儿就到了。”, which I believed meant “in about 5-10 minutes” when they actually meant, “in a few hours or so.” Sigh.
Sources and Further Reading
- Does Language Influence Culture? by Lera Boroditsky, Wall Street Journal
- Seeing Languages Differently by Mike Shaughnessy on Boing Boing
- Does Your Language Shape How You Think? by Guy Deutscher New York Times Magazine
- Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Kindle Version