Language is obviously crucial to describing and understanding the world around us but did you know the particular language you speak can influence how you see the world as compared to speakers of other languages? This weekend I had a chance to read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal on the topic authored by Lera Boroditsky who is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology.
What makes the article so interesting is the analysis of speakers of different languages and the differences in how they interpret the world. For example, 1/3 of the world uses language with absolute directions for space as opposed to relative ones and as a result the speakers of such languages are able to perform navigational feats scientists once thought humans were incapable of.
For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don’t use terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, “There’s an ant on your southwest leg.” To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, “Where are you going?”, and an appropriate response might be, “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?” If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello.
According to Boroditsky, People rely on their spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions but the researcher wanted to see if language influences how people think about time.
In order to find out they performed research by giving picture sets which were out of date order to people who spoke different languages. An example of a picture set is a baby, a child, a teen and an adult. They then requested that participants place the pictures in chronological order. The researchers found that Americans arranged he photos left to right while Israelis arranged the right to left. This isn’t too surprising as this is the respective direction of the languages spoken by each group. But for the aborigines, time apparently is arranged from east to west which means when seated towards the south they arrange the pictures left to right and when seated towards the north the direction of the pictures goes in the exact opposite sequence. And yes, if they are facing west, they organize the pictures starting with the first one closest to them and the last one farthest away.
Other research was designed to see how peoples’ memories functioned as a consequence of their languages mentioning an agent as part of a conversation. For example in English we would say Joe accidentally spilled coffee but in Spanish or Japanese the agent – Joe in this case, wouldn’t be mentioned when you described the coffee spilling event. As a result of this difference, Spanish and Japanese speakers had substandard results when they were asked to identify a person in a video who accidentally did something.
I couldn’t help think about the importance of language when I read an excellent article written by Gary Kim for TMCnet which discusses how the government is using language in creative ways to meet political objectives. For example, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and President Obama passed an emergency stimulus of $862 billion the president said it was necessary to keep unemployment from going over 8%. But since unemployment is hovering around 9.5% with the real unemployment figure about double this number the administration has begun to use a new term, jobs “created or saved.” In the past, results of job stimulus was understood by economists and virtually everyone else as jobs created. This is an example of using new language to deflect criticism as it is impossible to argue with how many jobs were saved. In fact I would like to go on record by saying this blog entry has just saved a million jobs. Just try and argue with me.
Kim then goes on to discuss the FCC and how they now define broadband as anything over 4 Mbps and an upload speed of 1 Mbps. He points out that the telecom industry had already defined broadband as anything at or above T1 speeds or 1.5 Mbps.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
By redefining “broadband” in this way, the FCC is free to conclude that “broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” Nobody would disagree that there are some households without any wired access, or without wired access capable of reasonable speeds.
Executives at firms that provide satellite broadband will, once again, be found muttering quietly that nearly every isolated U.S. household can be reached, today, by at least two different satellite providers. If the real intent was merely to get 4 Mbps capability to every household, then we effectively already are there.
Kim implies that most people are happy with their broadband speed as evidenced by how few people upgrade to faster speeds and he goes on to say the government by altering a definition which is widely agreed upon can now solve a problem most people don’t believe they have.
One just can’t help but realize that just as the language you speak can be responsible for shaping the way you think; when you redefine terms and phrases and put them together in new ways you have a chance to reshape perceived reality. And if you are a politician or government official it is very easy to use such methods to alter perception in a manner which allows you to achieve your goals.
I for one am all for improving the broadband speed of the US and every part of the world but if we are going to do so we should make sure to do it via a dialogue based upon terms and phrases we are all familiar with and which are accepted by the appropriate industries being affected.
After all, any family, company or society needs common terms with relatively stable definitions in order to be able to engage in a dialogue which everyone understands.
Making up new phrases like “jobs saved or created” or redefining others like broadband comes across as transparent ways of fooling the public. And citizens who believe the wool is being pulled over their eyes are far less likely to be happy with their government or the direction in which it is headed. You don’t have to be from Pormpuraaw to understand that this sort of continued behavior by the government will surely cause the US and its economy to head south.