It has always seemed to me that once we start thinking in words, the shape of those words becomes the shape of our thoughts. More accurately, it is the language itself—how those words are put together and what they can convey—that shape our thinking. Following from this, it makes sense that different languages lend themselves more or less easily to different ways of thinking.
Stanford Psychologist Lera Boroditsky explores this very theory in a recent Wall Street Journal article, asserting that language itself influences culture. She backs up this theory with anecdotes from research, and her examples are fascinating. What I find almost more interesting, however, is that many linguists have disregarded this theory, sometimes referred to as linguistic determinism, (though many believe that language’s effect on thought exists more on a continuum, which seems reasonable) for the last 40 or 50 years. None other than celebrated linguist Noam Chomsky asserts that all languages have a “universal grammar” and that each is, more or less, equal to the tasks for which human beings have created and used language. But decades of research, according to Boroditsky, have debunked this idea, and people are beginning to study, instead, just how language shapes the culture that creates it or, if you will, the culture it creates.
In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell compares the counting system of English to that shared by certain Asian languages including Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The Asian system is very regular and consistent: what we know in English as twelve translates literally into Mandarin as ten-two. Thirteen is “ten-three” and so on. Twenty-two is “two tens-two”—the value is inherent in the way the number is stated. When we say “twenty-two” in English our minds actually have to translate that word into the number value associated with it, and, although we soon come to do this with ease, our brains must still take an extra step to internalize the number value.
Is it any wonder that Asian children consistently outperform their peers in the U.S., France, Germany, England and other Western industrialized nations on mathematics exams? Of course one can argue that factors beyond language influence the scores, but the discrepancy, as reported in US News & World Report is so dramatic, and the language studies so compelling, it is hard to deny that the math engines built into these languages facilitate math learning to some extent.
Many of us have had the beautiful experience of learning an untranslatable word from a friend who speaks another language. Once we are able to get our heads around the concept signified by this foreign word—a concept our own language and culture has not formally recognized with language—we are thrilled. We haven’t simply learned a new word, we’ve learned something new and even somewhat mysterious (it can’t be translated after all) about the people who use that word.
My personal favorite, the Portuguese word saudade, can be described as something akin to the English word nostalgia, but without the gloppy sentimentality or, if I understand it right, quite the same flavor of melancholy. While saudade does convey longing for a past that can never return (as well as a future that will never happen or a present that is not turning out as one had hoped), acceptance of this reality is somehow built into the word. Saudade embodies all that is positive of a time or feeling that is no longer, while also deeply acknowledging the sadness of this truth. It can be found all over grave markers in Brazil, (and probably Portugal, too, but I’ve never walked through a Portuguese cemetery, so I don’t know). Brazilians even have an official day devoted to commemorating saudade (January 30). It’s hard to deny that this untranslatable word has an influence on the culture.
One day after school last spring, my son’s teacher sent him off with a string of Chinese that, by nature of the delivery, seemed important and meaningful.
“What did she say?” I asked my six-year-old.
“I can’t tell you” was his reply.
“You didn’t understand?”
“No, I understood, but I don’t know how to tell you.”
“Is it something you don’t want me to know about?” I pressed.
“No. It’s something good. I just don’t know how to say it in English.”
Perhaps as his abilities in both languages improve, once he learns more about nuance and increases his vocabulary, he can try to make me understand, just as my bilingual Brazilian friends have helped me with saudade. In the meantime, I will enjoy watching him learn how to speak–and to think–in more than one language.