Monday, July 26, 2010

Language and Culture

These days linguists and psychologists are very interested in the question of how, and to what extent, the language we use influences our thinking. This is a cool example:

For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don't use terms like "left" and "right." Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, "There's an ant on your southwest leg." To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, "Where are you going?", and an appropriate response might be, "A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?" If you don't know which way is which, you literally can't get past hello.

About a third of the world's languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.

I feel like the learning of languages and the study of other cultures has greatly influenced the way I think about the world. I can't imagine how anyone who really knew other cultures could espouse the sort of willfully ignorant nativism one commonly finds among American populists -- "we have nothing to learn from foreigners," "if you like the way its done where you used to live why don't you go back." And yet evidence suggests that I am wrong, and that some people can travel the world and come back more convinced that everyone else is wrong. So the causality my be reversed; I may have chosen to learn about other cultures because I am open to different ways of thinking and acting.

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