In the context of the Cairo speech, I had asked the question whether President Obama ‘got’ his audience right. The question was prompted by a conviction that speakers of different languages had subtle differences in how they saw and understood the world.
It is quite a coincidence that just a week later I found a fascinating study that has empirically tested this hypothesis.
Here are some (unconnected) excerpts from the article describing the study:
Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives? Do people who speak different languages think differently simply because they speak different languages?
These questions touch on nearly all of the major controversies in the study of mind. They have engaged scores of philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists, and they have important implications for politics, law, and religion. Yet despite nearly constant attention and debate, very little empirical work was done on these questions until recently. For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.
The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. That’s a lot of stuff!
I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses. Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.
Let us go back to what I had written in the post on the Obama speech:
Knowing one’s audience is an issue that has significance beyond the Cairo speech and beyond politics – it is at the heart of all communications, all attempts at persuasion, and all efforts at marketing.
Some socioeconomic situations make it easier to realize the nature of this phenomenon. Take a country like Pakistan with a colonial history where there are two broad groups in society – the English-educated, English-speaking elite and the others who communicate in languages other than English. The ways of persuading these two groups to a point of view require very different approaches. Again, if the constraint was to generalize with a one-word characterization, it could be argued that the first group is swayed more by deduction, the second more by precedent.
This might be difficult to accept as a first reaction. Try an experiment. Take an English language op-ed that you find particularly convincing. Translate it into a local language and give it to a local language speaker not familiar with English. Ask him or her the degree to which the message was found to be convincing. It is not that the local language speaker cannot be convinced or is impervious to logic; it is just that he or she has to be convinced in a different way.
This would be a great experiment for a journalism class.
In the post I had not mentioned how I came to feel that language had an impact on our thought process but in the context of the study mentioned above it is worthwhile doing so.
Many years back I happened to meet an editor of a local language newspaper at a time when he was planning an English language edition. My question was how he intended to deal with the scarcity of good opinion writers in English. He answered it would not be a problem because he would have the local language op-eds translated into English.
We met some years later and he told me the experiment was a failure. An op-ed translated literally from the local language to English seemed to lack something critical. It had to be fixed by someone who thought in English.
So I had empirical evidence of a limited nature. Subsequently my own experiences of translating content from English into local languages for study groups strengthened the belief that it was necessary to understand how a person from a different language group thought before one could succeed in convincing him or her.
It is very exciting to see a systematic study attempting to deepen our knowledge of this complex phenomenon. It also tells us how we can go about understanding complex issues better by testing our hypotheses after we have argued and speculated about them.