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Did the WSJ get an idea from The Global Citizen?

Did the Wall Street Journal obtain an idea from The Global Citizen?

I always love when a respected publication confirms what I have always believed.  I was very enthusiastic to read the WSJ article entitled:

Lost in Translation

“New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish”

The WSJ article puts forth the same idea on July 24th, 2010 that The Global Citizen posted on June 5th, 2010 – “Speak American – Fun lesson in language

Just compare:

WSJ: “Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?”

Global Citizen: ” The question is, does language form our thoughts or is it the other way around?  I would argue that our language is what gives structure to our thoughts.  Therefore, when we think in English we also “reason” in English.”

“When we learn another language, we are also learning a completely new “mentality.”  The way one thinks about things changes along with the language.  It is true that we can “translate” with great accuracy but there are subtle changes to the meaning.”

WSJ: “In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.”

Global Citizen: “I’m not sure if I can think of a super great example to demonstrate but I’ll give it a go.  I won’t use English/French/Spanish because they are too close on the linguistic tree.  Instead, let’s do English/Japanese.

-  English – I want to eat spaghetti
The stress of this sentence is on “I.”

- Japanese – Spaghetti tabetai – Spagetti wants to be eaten
The stress is on the Spaghetti

-Of course it is translated “I want to eat spaghetti” but really the focus is taken off the person who wants to eat the spaghetti and put on the spaghetti itself.  And the real kicker is it could mean “Do you want to eat Spaghetti!!”  All you have to do is change the inflection at the end as in a question.”

Where are my royalties??

Just kidding.  It does feel very good however when a respected publication confirms what I have previously written about and then I know I am not completely crazy.

There was also something very surprising in the article which I did not know.  I am a big fan of Noam Chomsky and apparently he did not believe that language begets mentality.  He believes the following:

“Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don’t really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking.”

Again, I love Noam Chomsky and this is the first idea I believe he is completely wrong about.  It is my opinion that language does give structure to mentality and not the other way around.  We see the world differently due to language and therefore, our mentalities ARE different.


6 Comments

  1. Mariano Escobedo's Gravatar Mariano Escobedo
    July 25, 2010    

    I am not a linguistic but here is my opinion. I think the natural and social environment in which we live determines the way we think and then we are stuck with the language we speak to express our thoughts. Since most information we receive comes in/through the language we speak it may look like the language we speak determines the way we think. Specially because we do not have another way to express our thoughts but through the same language. Only if we consider that language is the most important determinant of our social environment and that our social environmet is the only one that counts to determine the way we think, then we can conclude that language determines the way we think. My opinion is that, strictly speaking, it is the objective nature of our life experiences (the natural and social environment in which life takes place) what truly determines our way of thinking and not language itself. Language is only a way to express our thoughts.

  2. July 25, 2010    

    Mariano – I agree with you completely that our life experiences play a huge role in determining how we think. However, I believe it to be a very large part of the puzzle among other pieces. My thinking goes like this:

    1. Genetics – The hardware of your brain is the base. Some people may turn out to be killers while others may have a natural dispensation towards being happy and generous.
    2. Social Environment – This is huge as it hard wires together one's thoughts do to their experience of being alive. I think of it as the programming of the (genetic) hardware.
    3. Language
    - In this point I will disagree with you a little bit. I believe that language is what gives us the ability to "read" our own thoughts, build upon them and make new ideas. The fact that we can communicate them is secondary, we have to make sense of our own thoughts first.

    My reasoning goes as follows. A baby doesn't need language but surely has thoughts although they may not be very complex. As he learns language he can apply words to his previous thoughts as well as create entirely new thoughts while building on his mental dictionary.

    Fast forward to college we would not have certain thoughts if we did not gain the information from our professors. They simply wouldn't exist in our own minds. We learn what a theory is called, how it works and then add it to our mental dictionary. Then with enough of these words/ideas we can make new thoughts which may not have a word ascribed to them.

    Thus the language gives us building blogs with which to create new ideas and with a large enough base may change the way we think.

    Now enter language and for me, the greatest example remains English to Japanese. Going back to the baby, the English and Japanese baby will be told what certain thoughts ideas are in word form. If we compare the two as adults the same word translated may have two entirely different meanings due to the fact they are thought about in a completely different way. For an example:

    1. English: Foreigner – A person from a foreign land
    2. Japanese: Gaijin (外人) – This is translated but really means something much more.
    In the Japanese mentality it means "Outside Person." To really explain this I have to explain another word/idea

    a.) English: Home – Where you live
    b.) Japanese: Ie (家) – Home but it has more meaning to it. Home is the safe, clean place you return to each day while the outside is dirty, unsafe and not a place of comfort.

    Therefore, the safest place in Japan is at home where all is well and there is peace. If you go outside then another level is Japan where anything outside may be unsafe, unclean including the people.

    Therefore, the thought process that goes on is much different between a Westerner and a Japanese and this is due to the language which created this thought the Japanese have about their homes and foreigners. Without the word to teach the Japanese this idea it might be said that they might not have thought it at all. Or it could be said that these ideas accumulated into the word which allows young Japanese to quickly skip the thought process to formulate these ideas and just implants them all at once into their brains in the form of a word.

    Anywho, it's like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Perhaps it is both and they are interchangeable.

  3. July 26, 2010    

    Thanks to Jeff for this Link

    Sapir-Whorf hypothesis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativit

    the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it. A strong version of the hypothesis holds that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. A weaker version states that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour.

  4. Mariano Escobedo's Gravatar Mariano Escobedo
    July 27, 2010    

    As I said earlier, I am not a linguist. However, my studies in social sciencies (including economics and business) and languages (including literature and poetry) allow me to have an opinion that hopefully can be called "educated opinion". I adhere to dialectic materialism which states that it is the objective conditions of reality what determines de conceptual superstructure (the way that we perceive life). This view is consistent with any basic course in Epistemology (Theory of Knowledge) that some linguists insist to ignore. I truly believe that all the discusion about what comes first, whether the egg or the chicken, is just a distraction from the real issues about how we can make life better.

  5. Mariano Escobedo's Gravatar Mariano Escobedo
    July 27, 2010    

    Sandro Sessarego, a friend of mine who is a linguist, suggested these links on the subject matter, which I think may either add something to the discusion or create more confusion. Please, let me know your opinions. Thanks.

    The Whorfian Hypothesis: http://www.isss.org/primer/whorf.htm

    Some criticism: http://www.enformy.com/dma-dwh.htm

  6. Mariano Escobedo's Gravatar Mariano Escobedo
    July 28, 2010    

    The question of what came first, whether the chicken or the egg, can be answered from an evolutionary perspective: Since chickens come from lizards and lizards lay eggs to reproduce then the egg came first. Since chickens evolved from lizards, their genetic code already determined that to be able to reproduce chicken must also lay eggs but they first came from a lizard's egg. Can we have a similar solution to the problem of world, languag, and mentality.

    Mateo- I am going to discuss your last statement: " It is my opinion that language does give structure to mentality and not the other way around. We see the world differently due to language and therefore, our mentalities ARE different.."

    The Japanese see the world differently due to the fact that the Japanese world is different and their language allow them to express these differences. Therefore, it is the objective nature of the Japanese reality what determines the way they see it and express it.

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