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How language influences the way we think about the world

written by Andrea


When I was in university, we read a paper that has stuck with me ever since about how language influences the way we think about the world.

Children from a Dutch and Namibian elementary school were given the following task: Look at a table with three little figurines (cow, sheep, pig) on it standing in a row, facing the same direction. Then walk around the school and arrange the same figurines on that table just like the ones on the first table.

Seems easy enough and at first thought would seem like a memory exercise. The researchers however were more interested in how the figurines were placed on the second table. This one was turned by 90°. Are there even different options for how the children might place the figurines on the table?

In reality, the language the child spoke (Dutch or Hai||om) had an influence on how the placed the animals on the second table. Let me explain: Once the child moved to Table 2, which was rotated by 90°, they had three options for how they placed the figurines on the table: egocentric, object-centered and geocentric. In linguistics these are called frames of reference (FoR). FoR "serve to specify the directional relationship between objects, in reference to a shared spatial anchor" (pg 71). More exactly, this meant that

"If the animals on Table 1 are memorized as heading right (from the participants' point of view) in egocentric coordinates, subjects will reconstruct the array on Table 2 maintaining egocentric spatial relations: the reconstructed animals are heading right again. If participants use an object-centered FoR, so that the animals on Table 1 are heading away from the school, the animals will again be heading away from the school when reconstructed on Table 2. If the subjects memorize the animals in terms of geocentric coordinates (heading West), the animals will maintain alignment with a compass direction, regardless of rotation and displacement."

When the children were asked to use a different FoR than the one naturally provided by their language, they were much more likely to make mistakes.

We all use language to make sense of and talk about the world around us. When it comes to describing that world, different languages can make the world seem very different. In reality, different languages allow people to see the same world differently. This is however not something negative or something we should suppress. On the contrary, we can learn from each other and see the world in all kinds of new ways. Even though we will not describe the world differently, it can help to see that other ways are not wrong, just different rights.

#linguistics #understanding

Reference: Haun et al. (2011): Plasticity of human spatial cognition: Spatial language and cognition covary acros cultures. Cocnition 119: 70-80.

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