22 Oct 2010

How language shapes thought...

The Wall Street Journal has a compelling article on how the language(s) we speak influences the way we think.

“Some findings on how language can affect thinking:
  • Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
  • Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
  • The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
  • In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn’t remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: “The vase broke itself,” rather than “John broke the vase.”
As Namit Arora mentions here at Shunya’s Notes, this raises disturbing questions about languages that go extinct and the “collective human thought”(if I can call it that) that is lost in the process.

On the other hand, this may also imply that a multi-lingual speaker may have a wider variety of thought and perspective than someone who knows just one language.

So maybe we should all make resolutions to learn a new language in 2011?

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