Lost in Translation

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”  In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, language is increasingly restricted. By removing more and more words from the English language, Big Brother aims to keep the people in line with his oppressive regime. The idea is that if people cannot even talk about rebelling, then how could they think of it? Are our thought processes constrained by our languages? Or do our languages just reflect the way we think? Are we completely missing the point by asking these questions in English?

Linguistic relativism and determinism

Smith, Brown, Toman, and Goodman (1947) showed that perception and cognition can exist independently from the ability to speak a language, however there are many theories as to how the language that a person speaks may influence how they perceive the world. The idea that language shapes our personality and our perception received a lot of attention in the second part of the 20th century partly due to the Sapir-Whorf theory. In its strongest form, this theory claims that the language we speak directly determines the thoughts we can have. This would imply that some thoughts cannot be thought by certain people due to the language that they speak. This is called linguistic determinism. This was the idea that the recent sci-fi film Arrival was based around [SPOILER ALERT]. The film revolves around humans learning to communicate with aliens who come to Earth, and who bring their language as a gift to us. The language of the aliens changes the perception people have of time, allowing people to experience time non-linearly, i.e. seeing the past, present and future at any moment in time.

Lost in Translation - Arrival Picture


While this theory may be fascinating, it was not backed up by solid evidence, and so little further research was devoted to the subject for some time. The main problem behind this theory is that it claims that if a language does not have a word for a concept, then that would prevent anyone who speaks only that language from understanding that concept. However, if a language does not have a past tense, this does not mean that the speaker cannot remember the past, nor understand the idea of a past.


As well, there is a softer version of the Sapir-Whorf theory called linguistic relativity. This revolves around the idea that language influences how we perceive the world, rather than determining what concepts we can understand and those we cannot. As Lucy (1997) puts it in his paper: “Language embodies an interpretation of reality and language can influence thought about that reality”. In other words, linguistic relativity means that the structure of a given language will have consequences on the “patterns of thought about reality”. This is not because language allows us to have these different patterns, but that languages force us to think about some concepts more than others on a regular basis. According to The Influence of Our Native language on Cognitive Representations of Colour, Spatial Relations and Time by Nicholas P. Sarantakis, the impact of language on thought “is mediated by three pathways: (i) the intention of an individual to express their thoughts; (ii) the environmental and cultural context; and (iii) the ability of an individual to learn different modes of reasoning.” Linguistic relativity has been the object of many studies over the last two decades, there is a substantial amount of empirical evidence in its favour.


Where and when are we?

There are many different ways that languages use to designate space; most of our readers will be familiar with the concepts of left, right, up, and down, but that is not the case for all languages. In How does language shape the way we think?, the author, Lera Boroditsky, talks about how the Kuuk Thaayorre (a small aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia) describe space. They use north, south, east, and west. This may not seem that different until you learn that this is done for everything, so that your left leg would be your southwest leg. This means that the Kuuk Thaayorre have a sense of direction that few English speakers could possess, as they must constantly know where all four directions are. If this tribe does not stay oriented, then they cannot express anything about space. In most other current languages, directions are relative to the speaker, who does not need to know where north is to describe space. Lera Boroditsky’s study goes on to test the effect of using cardinal directions on the tribe’s perception of time, by giving them pictures with some kind of temporal progression (a man ageing, for instance) and asking them to arrange these pictures in chronological order. English speakers did this from left to right, Hebrew speakers from right to left. The Kurk Thaayorre arranged them from east to west: from left to right if they were facing south and vice-versa if they were facing north (the subjects were not told in which direction they were facing). This seems to be a direct result of the requirements of language on perception. We can also see different representations of time through language between English and Mandarin. This was studied in How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D by Lera Boroditsky et al., which concludes that “converging evidence from two paradigms strongly suggests that Mandarin speakers also think about time vertically more often than English speakers do. It appears that patterns in language and culture can induce differences in thought in even such fundamental conceptual domains as time.” While these results may indicate that language is influencing perception, could these not be down to cultural habits? To test this, Lera Boroditsky conducted an experiment in which English speakers were taught some new ways to describe time. They were taught size metaphors (that exist in Greek) for length (larger than a minute for example), and vertical metaphors as in Mandarin. This had a significant impact on the cognitive behaviour of the English speakers, who started to resemble the Greek and Mandarin speakers once they got used to the metaphors described above. It does seem that quirks of language have a causal effect on perception of time.

Did you just assume my gender?


English speakers learning a foreign language have often wondered why on Earth people choose to complicate their language by assigning a gender to all nouns: no one knows why a bridge should be masculine in Spanish or feminine in German. Or, as the New York Times’ Does your language shape the way you think? puts it: “Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her?” It would be easy to dismiss these as simple grammatical quirks, but it seems that it does have an effect on how we perceive these inanimate objects. For instance, when asking German and Spanish speakers to describe a key (masculine in German and feminine in Spanish), a study found that the Germans were more likely to use words like “heavy”, “jagged”, “serrated”. However, the Spanish used words such as “golden”, “intricate”, “shiny” and “lovely”, words that are generally associated as being more feminine. Again, teaching English speakers these grammatical genders influenced their descriptions so that they started to resemble those of the German and Spanish speakers. The gender of the words does seem to influence our perception of gender-less objects. Language seems to force people to think certain ways more habitually than others, but does not necessarily restrict the scope of thought. What does this mean for the increasing proportion of people who speak several languages? Why do some people claim to have different personalities depending on the language they speak?

How to think without style by Samuel Beckett

“More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true Gentleman. A mask.” Despite being a native English-speaker, Samuel Beckett decided that all the drafts of his works would be written in French. With this process, he was forcing himself to unpack his thinking and the way he was building his sentences. He later said that when writing in French he was forced to reflect on what he actually wanted to express, and not to rely on highly stylised English, in which he was bound to be distracted from the meaning by the form. Beckett’s point was actually proven right by a 2012 paper that showed that using a foreign language to make decisions makes people more of a rational homo economicus than in their first language. Thinking in one’s mother-tongue lets the way a problem is presented influence the way one takes into account the odds when making a decision. In this paper, students who were native English-speakers and spoke Japanese as a foreign language were asked either in Japanese or English to answer a modified “Asian disease” problem whose question was: recently, a dangerous new disease has been going around. Without medicine, 600,000 people will die from it. In order to save these people, two types of medicine are being made. If you choose Medicine A, 200,000 people will be saved. If you choose Medicine B, there is a 33.3% chance that 600,000 people will be saved and a 66.6% chance that no one will be saved. Which medicine do you choose? Generally, people are risk-averse so they would prefer to choose medicine A where they are sure to save 200,000 people instead of jeopardizing the lives of 600,000 people. The experience proved that point right with 77% of the people choosing the safe option. But by simply changing the framing of the question and stating the odds in terms of people saved, the odds were expressed in terms of deaths (i.e.: for Medicine A it stated that “400,000 will die,” and for Medicine B, it stated that there was a 33.3% chance that “no one will die” and a 66.6% chance that “600,000 people will die.”). In this framing only 47% of the participants chose the safe option which is a large shift from the previously 77%. When the same test is taken in a foreign language, this asymmetry in the answers almost disappears, showing resilience to the framing of the question and actually paying more attention to the substance of what was told to them. The approach to a problem is indeed different depending on the language the problem is set up. While thinking in a foreign language, the problem is formalised and looked at in terms of concepts and does not involve the emotional charge of the word.

As human beings, we are consistently inconsistent.

Stay brainfit, learn a new language

As a language changes the way one perceives his environment, learning a new one modifies perception, and even changes the physical structure of the brain. At the Swedish armed forces interpreter academy, researchers were able to closely monitor how learning a language modifies the brain. The students of this academy were learning a language intensively for 13 months, and their brain structure was compared to medicine and cognitive science students who worked equally hard but did not study languages. Using regular magnetic resonance imaging scans, they were able to monitor the evolution of the brain during the learning process. They witnessed an increase in size of specific parts of the brain, namely the hippocampus (deep lying structure) and three areas in the cerebral cortex, whereas the control group did not see any change in their brain structure. Interestingly different parts of the brain grew depending on the abilities of the learner:The most successful ones at learning languages saw the hippocampus and language related part of the cerebral cortex growing while the others just saw their motor region of the cortex growing. This short term study shows how learning a language is affecting the brain. But the areas of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found languages, and brain development varied according to performance. Such an effect over a few months’ interval suggests that speaking many languages keeps the brain in shape by increasing the cognitive load on the brain. According to The Cognitive Effects of Being Bilingual by Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook, bilingualism can help stave off some degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer. This paper found that bilingual patients started reporting symptoms of the disease roughly 5 years later than the average for monolingual people.


Lost in Transaltion - Babel Fish


Perhaps language barriers and the different patterns of thought each one encourages is something to be celebrated. Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy considers the case of the Babel fish (once inserted into the person’s ear, allows the person to understand any form of language) which “by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” The languages we speak have a profound impact on how we see the world, and how we think. And we still have a lot to learn about our languages and their implications, as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl wrote in Hannah Arendt’s biography “it is the poets or poetic thinkers who live by an expectation that language will deliver us from the temptation not to think.”

By Arthur Hill and Tristan Salmon


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