We are what we say: how language shapes our brains
Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer and an expert in linguistics, has been thinking a lot about the neuroscience of language and the effect it has on our behaviour. She includes a round up of some of the latest thinking on the subject.
Since human languages vary considerably in the information they convey, scholars have long wondered how this might affect how we think and how we behave. According to Lera Boroditsky, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD, in a 2011 article for Scientific American, “A solid body of evidence showing how language shapes thinking has finally emerged. The evidence overturns the long standing dogma about universality and yields fascinating insights into the origins of knowledge and the construction of reality. The results have important implications for law, politics, and education.”
And business, one might add.
Research in Boroditsky’s lab, as well as in many others, has been uncovering how language shapes the fundamental dimensions of human experience, including space, time, causality, and relationships with others.
Asifa Majid and her colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have conducted research on the neurocognition of language and space. She says: “Think where you left your glasses. Of course, they were to the right of the telephone! This is the sort of everyday coding of spatial location we use. But some people in other cultures think differently about the same situation: they would code the glasses as being on the telephone’s own left side, or even as being north-east of the phone!”
For example, there’s a language called Guugu Yimithirr (spoken in North Queensland, Australia) that doesn’t have words like left and right or front and back. Its speakers always describe locations and directions using the Guugu Yimithirr words for north, south, east, and west. So, they would never say that a boy is standing in front of a house; instead, they’d say he is standing (for example) east of the house. They would also, no doubt, think of the boy as standing east of the house, while a speaker of English would think of him as standing in front of the house.
Since directions and spatial relationships are constantly reinforced for speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, they have a great sense of direction while we English speakers, who have grown up with a different spatial cognition system, keep getting lost.
Through a number of complicated tenses, English is a language that imparts a lot of information about when events occur. We can understand, for example, just by the tense that is used, that something occurred in the past and is continuing to this day, that something continued for a long period of time but is now over, or that it happened in the past but only once. We have the simple past, present and future, the past, present and future continuous, the past, present and future perfect, and the past, present and future perfect continuous — not to mention the subjunctive and the conditional tenses. This has made English speakers acutely aware of time-frames, timelines, and deadlines. In other languages, time might be left out of a communication altogether. The listener or reader is left to deduce from the context whether an event happened in the past, is going on now, or is scheduled for the future.
As English speakers, we’ve been taught to avoid the passive voice (something that Word’s grammar check constantly reinforces). For example, when we hear the sentence “A $3000 bottle of ’59 Grange was given to the Premier”, we understand that some information is left out. Our suspicions are raised and we want to know who gave such an expensive bottle of wine to a premier and why.
As Boroditsky says, “Nonagentive language sounds evasive in English, the province of guilt-shirking children and politicians. English speakers tend to phrase things in terms of people doing things, preferring transitive constructions like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Japanese or Spanish, in contrast, are less likely to mention the agent when describing an accidental event. In Spanish one might say “Se rompió el florero,” which translates to “the vase broke” or “the vase broke itself.”
Relationships with others
Economist Keith Chen observes that to say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode a lot of information about the uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger. “All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”
This is the case with many Asian languages, where loyalty to the group takes precedence over the individual. Relations among people are more important than the ‘business at hand’. Direct language is valued less to convey meaning and more to assist in relationship building and creating an atmosphere.
In many western cultures, where relationships are not as overtly communicated in languages, individualism trumps collectivism.
Implications for workplaces
Diversity and flattened organisational structures are generally the most innovative, however, there could be a cost involved. While different ways of thinking and operating are a real benefit, diversity can also create misunderstandings at fundamental levels. An awareness that language shapes our brains as well as the culture to which we belong is the first step.
We need to rethink the relation between the neurocognitive underpinnings of the concepts we use in everyday thinking, and, more generally, to work out how to account for cross-cultural cognitive diversity in core cognitive domains, such as those described above.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that our language has forced a certain view of time or space or relationships on us; it could also be that our view of such basic concepts is reflected in our language, or that the way we deal with them in our culture is reflected in both our language and our thoughts. It seems likely that language, thought, and culture form three strands of a braid, with each one affecting the others.
Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. With a graduate degree in linguistics she is fascinated with how language impacts our everyday lives (and vice versa!). Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure.