Monday, July 26, 2010

Wall Street Journal article on language and cognition

The WSJ has published a very interesting article on language and thinking, exploring the idea that the language we speak reflects and shapes our thinking. They report that this hypothesis has been gaining credibility in recent years from research, going against the entrenched views propounded by the (highly questionable) Noam Chomsky on the universality of language. Although, to be fair, the representation of Chomsky's theory is probably oversimplified.

From my viewpoint as a fully bilingual speaker from a young age, I can agree with this. The language is a collective construct of a people and its culture. It is therefore an effect and a cause of that people's mindset. I prefer English, not only because of the accident that I was born in America (I was almost born in Germany) and it was my first language (followed shortly by Italian, learned at age seven,) but because it best expresses who I am. A good example is my impatience and dislike of the formal tu and lei, which to me is indicative of the lesser degree of natural democracy in Italy (and many other non-English-speaking countries) with respect to English-speaking countries. This statement will of course be controversial and "political." I can just hear the Italians (and French, Spaniards, Germans, South Americans ...) yell curses at me. Perhaps using the informal pronoun to express disrespect.

Yes, it is political. And it has enormous implications for practical matters such as language learning and language adoption. The overwhelming influence of my beloved native tongue can easily be seen as a force for cultural homogeneity, although I do not think that we English speakers are imperialist (politics again.) But I am strongly in favor of foreign language learning, aside from the practical benefits (which may be limited.) For the very reason that they do allow you to escape your cultural paradigm, to the extent that that is possible. And in that sense, nobody needs to learn other languages more than Americans.

A couple of concrete examples from Italian to substantiate the hypothesis. To my mind, the very common uses of bello and simpatico show the Italian love of esthetics and appearance. Bello is used all over the place, even where in English we would use "good." E' un bel film means "it's a good movie," not "it's a beautiful movie." People are commonly divided into simpatico and antipatico (likeable and unlikeable,) not on their moral qualities or character. The very word carattere in Italian is closer to "personality" than our English "character." Expressive of a certain moral superficiality. No, these considerations are not flattering to the Italians. But I make no claim to universal objectivity- this is what strikes me, as someone coming from a different culture, using a different language.