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Language and Thought

jessicarizzo's picture

We are accustomed to hearing the benefits of multilingualism being extolled, and the advent of rapid globalization throws into even sharper relief the foolhardiness of confining oneself to the “prison house” of the mother tongue. In “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” Guy Deutscher discusses recent attempts to reinvestigate the architecture of this prison. The investigation follows decades of polite avoidance of the subject as new studies, Deutscher says, are providing linguists with ways of thinking about the relationship between primary language and cognition that are far more sophisticated than Benjamin Lee Whorf’s now much-derided claim that Native American languages, for example, “impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours.”


Not irreconcilably different, not a “difference” that really means to imply inferiority, a handicap, but the new science suggests that, yes, beginning with a different mother tongue means you form your initial picture of reality from a different vantage point.  To explore the implications for education, I would like to emphasize that what is being spoken of is but an initial picture. A picture that aims to “capture,” to represent, reality is always a somewhat strange and artificial thing. It freezes that which is always “really” flowing. All the same, language, which maybe more than any other way of knowing cannot be separated from the messy evolution of its practical application, turns out to have an enormous amount of influence over the ways in which we first understand ourselves as subjects. 


Deutscher’s most interesting example concerns Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal tongue spoken in Australia. Speakers of Guugu Yimithirr do not make use of words like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind” to give directions or describe positions. Instead they rely on non-egocentric geographical coordinates. The position of an object is described in terms of north, south, east, or west, so the speaker and the addressee recede, each becoming just another part of the landscape. It is easy to imagine how a lifetime of operating in such a language could produce an experience of the world quite different from the one we have as English speakers who by default grant more prominence to the perceiving subject in the sentence. Even though the neuroscience isn’t yet sophisticated enough to illuminate all the complicated ways in which how we speak may influence or dictate how we think, certain intriguing pieces of evidence suggest that the extent of the divergence may be profound. When, for example, an English speaker points to herself, we understand her to be indicating herself, but when a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points to himself, he is just as likely to be indicating the cardinal direction behind his back. “The Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.”


What are the implications for education? How does this change what we think we already know about bilingualism and the brain? Recent research highlights the benefits of bilingualism that can be observed on a neurological level. Bilinguals, one Spanish research group reports, use a portion of the left brain called Broca’s area to perform certain executive functions, where monolinguals use a portion of the right brain to accomplish the same tasks, and when the two groups were compared, the bilinguals were shown to be capable of performing the tasks faster and more efficiently. The edge is attributed to the different form of cerebral control. That the exercising of better, more, different, neurological capacities turns us into more agile thinkers makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, and it follows that promoting multilingualism should be a top priority for education policy makers. 


So naturally just the opposite is happening in the United States. Foreign language classes were among the first course offerings eliminated when the current/recent economic crisis necessitated deep budget cuts everywhere. This occurring at all levels, from public primary education up through Harvard where a number of not so very obscure Slavic language courses were done away with in 2009. In 2008 as the Swedish Academy entered final deliberations for the year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl was asked about the fact that no American author has been awarded the prize since Toni Morrison won in 1993. “The US is too isolated, too insular,” Engdahl replied. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” What we can now observe on the level of the brain gets mirrored and magnified in a frightening way in the larger culture. The United States is this rather dull, monolingual research subject with an inactive Broca’s area. “Too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” Engdahl added of American authors, respectfully refraining from framing the observation in terms of exclusive obsession or cultural narcissism. Not that a nation’s record of success with any single annual prize should be regarded as a definitive or credible indication of its intellectual fitness, but it is clear that if the United States refuses to talk to anyone except itself, it puts itself at risk for considerable intellectual atrophy and, as we might imagine, a gradual drift into irrelevance. 


Except that again, given the existing global economic conditions, the laws that govern the rest of the universe do not apply to the United States. The artistic, intellectual atrophy is observable, certainly, but it has occurred in conjunction with a muscular program of cultural imperialism. We export our popular entertainment products all over the world, and with them we export our increasingly impoverished mother tongue not only via the pop music playing on every radio, in every store, in every mall everywhere, but by more systematic means that are becoming more efficient all the time. An article that ran in the International Herald Tribune this summer as a part of a series on disappearing national languages profiled a not too unusual middle class Indonesian family. Readers are introduced to the three young Sugiarto children whose fluency in English makes them objects of other parents’ envy and admiration. Their mother and father are wealthy enough to send them to a private school where English is the main language of instruction, and they speak to their children in English at home. As a solid command of the world’s new lingua franca became a prerequisite for competitive admission to prestigious universities and participation in the international job market, there emerged a seemingly automatic preference for cultivating English fluency, even if it meant critically neglecting native language skills. The Sugiarto children speak no Bahasa, the official Indonesian language. Not even a little bit. Last year, the Miss Indonesia crown went to a young woman with an Indonesian father and an American mother. The contestant dazzled with her English fluency, but needed interpreters to translate the judges’ questions.


Other articles in the series describe similar now-common scenarios in many Asian countries, often involving grandparents left unable to communicate with grandchildren whose parents have drilled English into them as a point of pride and economic shrewdness. More and more native languages are simply going extinct as English takes over. What is perhaps more alarming, a parent will sometimes take it upon himself to teach his child English, ruling that only English is to be spoken at home even when the parent’s command of English is less than stellar, resulting in children that aren’t quite fluent in any language at all.


This is a catastrophe. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell lamented the decline of the English language, and reflected on how easily “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” But Orwell was not making an apocalyptic diagnosis. “The point,” he went on, “is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” Should English speakers prove unwilling to “take the necessary trouble,” however, slovenly speakers and writers become foolish thinkers, who in turn become susceptible to dangerous and simplistically totalizing ideologies. They become more and more sheep-like, more and more docile, easier to herd into the hypothetical or actual fascist machine. And today, people are infinitely less likely to “take the necessary trouble” not because they are lazy, but because the global economy appears to offer incentives for being able to think in one way, in one language. Since that language is stretched and challenged so seldom, since it remains so comfortably, and therefore statically, enthroned as lingua franca, it can only degenerate, never evolve. And as it degenerates, the general quality of thought declines in a scenario more nightmarish than anything Orwell originally imagined, because now the slovenly Americans paradoxically occupy the most influential position. Without any impetus to check their own entropic movement, the slide will continue, and they will drag everyone else down with them. 


Orwell believed this trend towards the gradual dumbing-down of the universe could be reversed, and although the world is a more complicated place today, the remedy is actually the same as it was in 1946, simply “taking the necessary trouble.” On an educational policy-making level, this means nurturing the acquisition of foreign language skills at all levels, but particularly with younger children, whose brains stand to gain more, and more easily. But the implications reach beyond language. If we can be permitted to proceed by analogy, what the research on bilingualism suggests is that the best kind of education involves deep immersion in, and investigation of, “other” ways of thinking, pointing the way towards all sorts of fruitful interdisciplinary work, and a generally more decentralized approach to learning. 



Paul Grobstein's picture

exploring "other" in language and education in general

"the best kind of education involves deep immersion in, and investigation of, “other” ways of thinking, pointing the way towards all sorts of fruitful interdisciplinary work, and a generally more decentralized approach to learning. "

This certainly appeals to me.  But, as you say, the trend tends to be otherwise, both linguistically and in general.  Maybe we need to better understand the reasons for the trend if we want to oppose it?