Describing the world around me

Posted on: 09 Mar 2012

Written by: joel

“Miss, do you think in French, Spanish or English…?” I don’t remember much from my Spanish lessons at school, but I do remember asking that question. Obviously my only aim was to distract Ms. Claveau from Spanish vocab, but I’d stumbled onto something profound. Because lying behind my question is another one. Does our language shape the way we think? Do we understand the world differently depending on the language we speak? And if so, what happens if we’re multilingual; are we able to do more than simply speak multiple languages? Are we able to understand our world in multiple ways?

I’m speaking in layman’s terms of linguistic relativity, the theory that “the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualise their world.” This idea has seen somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, with research conducted to demonstrate concrete differences between speakers of languages. For example, the Kuuk Thaayorre Aborigine tribe use North, South, East and West instead of forward, back, left and right to describe space. As a result, the tribe’s members always know which direction is North, making a compass an utter irrelevance. A small and very niche example, maybe – but one that demonstrates just how much of an impact language can have. Sitting at my desk, I have no idea which way North is but I do know my cup of tea is to my left. If a Kuuk Thaayorre tribe member was next to me, he’d not only know which way North was, but he’d also be completely incapable of telling my where my cup of tea was if he didn’t.

So, if you’re currently struggling to learn a new language, “you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking”. If that doesn’t motivate you to keep up the hard graft, I don’t know what will! And if you’re seeking to do business with people of other languages, your translators need to do far more than change an English noun into a Mandarin noun, or an English verb into a Mandarin verb. They need to be able to cross from the Mandarin conceptualisation of the world into the English understanding of the world and back again. They need to straddle two different ways of thinking and attempt to build a bridge between them. The idea that this could be done by an amateur, let alone a computer, is as bizarre as it is misguided.


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