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Do Bi-Lingual Robots Dream of…..Bi-Lingual Sheep?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.'”  – Shakespeare

Star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet might have thought that words in general and names in particular didn’t matter all that much, but it turns out that the language(s) we learn and the words we use do have a substantial impact on how we think.

Hidden Brain is one of my favorite National Public Radio shows. Every episode touches on a fascinating aspect of how humans think, including the healing power of laughter, the intersection between comfort and creativity, and how to improve empathy.

Anything about language tends to intrigue me, and when I started listening to the episode Lost In Translation: The Power Of Language To Shape How We View The World (an interview with Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive science professor at the University of California, San Diego), I was engrossed.

Even if you’ve never studied a second language, you’re probably aware of the idea that there are some words that just don’t translate. German’s Kummerspeck (grief bacon: both the act of comfort eating and the weight that you gain from the process), Danish’s hygge (the feeling of coziness that comes from being perfectly content), or Spanish’s sobremesa (the time spent after a meal socializing with your dining companions).

The specific example given on the episode is mendokusai, a Japanese word that refers to the feeling when you just can’t put forth the effort to do something, even something very small, because it would disrupt the cozy, comfortable feeling you’re experiencing.

Though an entire episode about untranslatable words would be a lot of fun, this episode was devoted more to how the differences in our languages actually affect how we think.

For example in languages that don’t have words for left and right, speakers orient themselves with north, south, east, and west. People who speak these languages, are able to orient themselves much better that those who don’t, and even better than we used to think people could at all.

Time is another aspect of our lives directly affected by how we use language. We tend to think of time as it relates to space. In languages that read from left to right, such as English, time tends to flow from left to right. Languages that read in the opposite direction also organize thoughts of time in the same way.

And what about those people that orient by cardinal direction instead of right and left? For them, time flows from east to west, so how they organize the idea of time depends on which direction they are facing.

The effects of language on our thinking can seem small but influence us in unforeseen ways. The concept of nouns having gender is one example of this. For example, consider the English word “bridge,” If a bridge is feminine in a language, the speakers of that language are more likely to say that bridges are beautiful and elegant. But in another language, where the word bridge is masculine, those speakers are more likely to characterize bridges as strong and sturdy, more stereotypically masculine attributes.

Language can even affect non-speaking areas such as art. If the word for death is masculine in an artist’s language, that artist is likely to paint death as a man. If death is a feminine noun, then it’s more likely to be painted as a woman.

Another example of linguistic differences is that many languages make a distinction between accidents and intentional occurrences. As a result, speakers of two different languages can look at the same event and have different memories of what happened because of the way they would use differently structured languages to describe the event.

So what do these linguistic differences mean for people who speak more than one language? Do these people switch completely from one system to another, or are the two systems merged in the mind of the speaker? As is often the case, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, where neither language is completely turned off or on, but can become more prominent when actively speaking a particular language.

Words do have power, and how we use them influences us in ways we might never suspect. “Everyone also intuitively believes that language really matters – what you call something really matters. And you know that because people argue about what to call things all the time. If we thought it didn’t really matter, why would we argue about it? Why would we pay advertising companies so much money to name products? Why would we stress so much about what to call our children?”

The languages we learn impact our lives more than we might realize—understanding the nuances between languages and their structures can better help us understand each other.

To listen to this particular episode of Hidden Brain in full, click Lost In Translation: The Power Of Language To Shape How We View The World (a transcript is also available if you prefer to read instead of listen). To go to the home page for the show itself, click Hidden Brain.

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