Have you ever heard of Ella Frances Sanders?
After doing some foreign language learning, this illustrator had the brilliant idea of putting into images words that don’t exist in other languages, meaning that they can only be translated by explaining the words (i.e. paraphrasing). An example of this would be poronkusena, a Finnish word which means the distance a reindeer is able to cover before having to rest. And another one would be tsundoku, which is Japanese for buying a book but never reading it, such a books ends up a pile of other tsundoku. And there are many of these!
If untranslatable words strike you as odd, the following might do to, too… Many scientists explain languages as being what we use to define our perception of the world. However, it might be the language we speak which defines how we view the world, or how we perceive details of the world (such as the Finns who seem so worried about their reindeer) others wouldn’t perceive. And here are some interesting research results we’re taking a look at today.
Foreign Language Learning Opens a New World
Since the 1940s many researchers have been asking themselves if the language we speak shapes our view of the world. Although I say language, some skeptics think that it is the culture associated with the language which shapes our way of seeing things, and not the language per se.
This debate has been revived by Panos Athanosopoulos, Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Lancaster (UK). He and his team were wondering if a single person can have two “minds”. That is, if a bilingual could view the world in two different ways.
Of course, when I talk about the view of the world, I am really talking about the way we can perceive our environment (i.e. the way we think, our state of mind and the way we react to such and such event).
Can One Person Have Two Minds?
The team of Panos Athanosopoulos thus made a small experiment to test their hypothesis in order to answer once and for all this question. The experiment consisted in discovering how English speakers and German speakers would perceive certain events, and then to discover which perception English-German bilinguals leaned towards (in other words, whether they think more like Germans or like English people).
All participants had to describe what was happening in video clips shown to them. The first step of this study showed that Germans had the tendency to speak about the beginning, middle and end of an event, giving a context and imagining a goal for the action taking place. For example? A German would probably describe this picture as such: “A woman is walking to her car”. While an English person would only limit themselves to saying:”A woman is walking in the street”.
During the second step of the experiment, native English speakers and native German speakers, after having seen three videos with ambiguous scenes (in other words, you couldn’t really understand what was going on), had to tell whether the scene had a clearly defined goal or whether there were no clearly defined goals for the scene. To no big surprise, and as the first step of the experiment would have predicted, more Germans thought that the ambiguous scenes had a defined goal (40%), while only 25% native English speakers thought so. Once more, this proves that Germans are more prone to think of the result of the action, while English people tend to concentrate on the action itself.
The study then continued with German-English bilinguals. The goal was to find out how they would describe the same scene: more like Germans (identifying goal) or more like English people (only describing the action). Only one thing differed in this step: someone read a list of numbers, either in English, or in German, during the process, in order to get the participants to think in the language desired.
And this is the result.
When the participants only heard German numbers, they would think like the Germans had (identifying a goal), but when they only heard English, they would think more like English persons (focusing on the action, leaving the ending undefined). And when the researchers, to add a bit of variation, changed the language of the numbers being said out loud, strangely, their way of thinking changed as well.
Foreign Language Learning Gives You a Second Mind!
The result of this interesting experience thus proved that speaking a second language can unconsciously change us, especially the way we perceive things. Learning a second language makes us learn to see things differently; in other words, foreign language learning means acquiring an alternative view of the world.
Two Languages, Two Minds, a study lead by Panos Athanosopoulos and his team, and published in Psychological Science, in March 2015.
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