The More We Know about Languages, the More Questions We Have to Ask

Alzar School | 25.01.16

In Spanish class this past Friday, both Spanish teachers decided to start their first class of the semester with a conversation about how languages can affect the way we think. This topic has been heavily debated in Linguistics for years, but now that Psychologists, Neuroscientists, Sociologists, and even Economists are getting involved, it’s becoming more and more apparent just how huge the language(s) that one speaks can be in shaping the reality that they (the newly accepted singular, neutral pronoun recognized by the ADA as the Word of the Year in 2015) experience.

Where to begin?

Well, in an article titled “How Languages Can Affect the Way We Think“, Jessica Gross explains that languages can be understood as “futured languages” and “futureless languages”. English is a “futured language”, and what that means is that for native English-speakers, we unconsciously make a distinction between our reality now and our reality later. And, although that may not seem like a big dealresearch shows that, “… futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers… [because] when we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.” How do you think a futureless language would affect the way relationships are conducted? On the flip-side, though, how much better do you think a futured language-speaker would be at recognizing that this is a hard day or week or  month, but that things will change?

Nearly all the articles the students read cited the difference between geographically and egocentrically directional languages. An aboriginal community from Australia speak a language called Pormpuraaw, and it is considered geographically directional. English is not. When I give a friend directions to my house, I say, “Drive three streets down, take a right, and my house with be on the left”. This information would likely be confusing and useless for a Pormpuraawan because they read the land using North, South, East, and West exclusively. This has such a huge affect on their ability to stay oriented that a test was conducted in which geographically directional language-speakers were put in an unknown room with no windows and spun around many times. When they were stopped and asked what direction they were facing, they were almost always correct. Could you do that?

Some language nerds might cringe at hearing the pronoun they refer to only one person -as used in the first paragraph-, and others might consider it to be too general, but the reality is that other languages actually don’t have gendered pronouns at all. In Finnish, as our students read last week, there are no gender markers. No ‘he’s, ‘she’s, ‘him’s, or ‘her’s. A Spanish B students, Liam, explained that one of his good friends is Finnish. Liam said that he’s never met anyone his age more comfortable with the opposite sex. Can you imagine all teen-aged American… people feeling that way?

True, we haven’t even mentioned Spanish, and this is a Spanish class, right? The most obvious affect that Spanish has on its speakers is through its use of gendered, inanimate objects. In another article entitled “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?“, Guy Deutscher cites Russian, Spanish, and German as languages that refer to things as ‘her’ and ‘him’. What is fascinating about this is that the words that are feminine in one gendered languages aren’t necessarily so in another which allows researchers to determine if people generally perceive them differently merely due to their assigned gender in that language. The answer is yes. For example, the word for bridge is die Brücke – a feminine noun – whereas in Spanish, it’s masculine; Germans used words such as “slender” and “elegant” to describe a bridge. Spanish-speakers, on the other hand  used adjectives having to do with strength (typically understood as a masculine characteristic). This ultimately lead Guy Deutscher to ask, “Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life?”

As our AP English Teaching Fellow, Megan, has said, “I’m more interested in questions than I am answers”, and as far as this topic is concerned, I absolutely have to agree. Our students left that class asking themselves questions they’d never considered before. My hope is that every day’s lesson obliges our students to ask even more questions – I think we’re off to a good start.