Language Theory: Can Language Influence Experience? | Bilingua Franca

Can language influence experience? A Look Into Cognition, Language, And Culture

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Neural connectionsTranslation, Cognition, and the Sapin-Whorf Hypothesis

Learning a new language begins with the basics of linguistics: nouns, verbs, syntax, conjugation. It’s easy to pick up an English-to-Spanish dictionary and convert individual words back and forth, but the ideas and understanding behind the words work on a much more complex level.

Google Translate shows us that robotic, algorithm-based translations don’t always “translate.” Many of us have likely abused Google Translate for quick casual translations. And most bilinguals have suffered the ire of exasperating results knowing that the output resembled, at best pidgin speech, and at worst, gobbledygook.

It’s clear that translation is more than simply words. A true understand of language encompasses larger ideas, linguistic semantics, and cultural awareness. Language and culture are intrinsically linked—but are language and thought as well?

Linguistic Relativity

It’s been suggested that language does, in fact, affect one’s internal experience. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes the psychological significance of “Linguistic Relativity,” the concept that “language affects its speakers’ cognition or world view”. This, in essence, means language affects understanding. The work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf during the first part of the twentieth century lay the groundwork for many linguists to come. (Arguably, the largest contribution to the theory of linguistic relativity is the importance it places on less frequently spoken languages, such as Hopi and Inuit, being of no less value than such commonly used languages as English.)

So, what exactly does it mean for a language to affect cognition? Can wording truly influence thought?

In Turkish, the concept of past time is communicated in two distinct ways: firsthand experience, and inference or hearsay. If someone saw a hen lay an egg, their wording would be different than had they simply found the egg in the coop and inferred that the hen had, indeed, laid an egg. More info below:

In Turkish, there are 9 simple and 20 compound tenses. 9 simple tenses are simple past (di’li geçmiş), inferential past (miş’li geçmiş), present continuous, simple present (aorist), future, wish, demand, necessitative (“must”) and order. There are three groups of compound forms. Story (hikaye) is the witnessed past of the above forms (except command), rumor (rivayet) is the unwitnessed past of the above forms (except inferential past and command), conditional wish (koşul) is the conditional form of the first five basic tenses. In the example below the second person singular of the verb git (“go”) is shown.
English of the basic form Basic tense Story (hikaye) Rumor (rivayet) Condition (koşul)
you went gittin gittiydin gittiysen
you have gone gitmişsin gitmiştin gitmişmişsin gitmişsen
you are going gidiyorsun gidiyordun gidiyormuşsun gidiyorsan
you (always) go gidersin giderdin gidermişsin gidersen
you will go gideceksin gidecektin gidecekmişsin gideceksen
(I wish) you go gitsen gitseydin gitseymişsin
go gidesin gideydin gideymişsin
you must go gitmelisin gitmeliydin gitmeliymişin
go (command) git

(Sources: YÜKSEL GÖKNEL, turkishstudies.net)

The different past tense verbiage seems to place cognitive emphasis on evidence versus personal experience. It could be argued that Turkish-speaking people think of the past differently than non-Turkish speakers. The relationship here between categorization and speech is the greater necessity for distinction that it would be in English; however, we are left to speculate which one is the determinant of the other, and to what degree.

Spanish and its sister Latin-based languages categorize their nouns into genders. The hand is feminine; the foot is masculine. English nouns are universally neuter. This gender categorization of all objects can be difficult for speakers of neuter languages who come to learn Spanish, Italian, Russian or another language as an adult.

Cognition and languageA notable exception to seemingly random object gender categorization exists in the automatic cognitive “gendering” of many professions. For example, the Spanish words for doctor, el doctor or el medico, are masculine in their generic form. And while their English counterparts are technically gender-neutral, their accompanying connotation is inherently male; it’s frequent to hear “female doctor” or “male model” as sexist gender distinctions for a technically gender-less term. While this could be a chicken-or-the-egg concept, a study from Montclair State University suggests it stands as an example of universal linguistic relativity: “That language seems to reflect the stereotypes of traditional gender roles, the gendering of language—whether grammatical or natural—may influence a person’s desire to seek certain employment opportunities.”

Spanish, like its sister languages French and Spanish, utilizes formal pronouns for formal relationships. Vos, usted, lei, and vous are all formal. Tu is the informal pronoun of all three. = English has one pronoun—you—which is applicable to any second person address, regardless of gender, number, or social status. In order to employ the correct pronouns, speakers of romance languages must maintain a continuous awareness of their social standing relative to others throughout conversation and interaction. English speakers may enjoy the liberty of a looser perception of formality and social status.

Different Language, Different Personality

 

If linguistic relativity—the idea that words influence thoughts—is correct, then the language we use shapes our interpretations of the world. But language and culture seem to be linked inseparably. 

It seems to be most noticeably experienced when the different spoken languages are representative of two truly different cultures, and it’s here we can really see how cognition and experience could be impacted by the flow of language—and ideas—beneath them. Bilinguals are proficient speakers of two languages—they can translate wording and communicate effectively in both. Those with bicultural backgrounds possess cultural knowledge and understanding of two separate sets of philosophy, nationality, and experience.

When making translations, we want the conversion to be as smooth as possible. With so many variables, from linguistics to social expectations, the translator should stand with a foot firmly in both camps. Translators who are not just bilingual, but bicultural as well, are uniquely positioned to shift from one language to another. It is one thing to translate words, and another entirely to effectively carry the ideas, emotion, and meaning behind them. Linguistic relativity can be seen as a beautiful cultural uniqueness requiring precise and artful translation. Bicultural-bilingual translators can act to bridge the gap between words and understanding, across two languages.

Pablo V.
Founder of Bilingua Franca. Pablo holds a BA in Sociology and works as an Organic SEO Strategist for an agency in Phoenix. He is a study abroad enthusiast, a lover of deep and meaningful conversations, and is always fascinated to understand how things work. His passions include culture, language, human behavior, and astronomy.

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