Expert in the field Monique Flecken is optimistic and explains what we can learn from recent scientific work.
You might have had your fair share of them: word lists. On the left the word in the foreign language, next to it the translation in your mother tongue. This is how we usually learn words in a foreign language: we ‘link’ the new word to a word that we already know. The same goes for grammatical constructs, for which we try to find an equivalent in our native language. But what to do if there is no such translation possible? For example if you would learn Russian – which lacks a single term for ‘blue’ -, you have to learn two different terms for light and dark shades of blue. Would learning those new words or structures mean that we have to extend our way of thinking and could it change the way we see the world?
Some would argue so. And indeed, research has shown that speakers of Russian perceive the colour blue differently. The question whether languages shapes cognition goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, and resulted in the classical works of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. They argued that language influences thought, or even completely determines it – the so-called ‘linguistic relativity’ principle. Whorf became famous for his work on the Hopi language, and his claim that the Hopi have a completely different perspective on time, as in their language it is not possible to say something like ‘five days’ or ‘two hours’.
Language influences thought, or even completely determines it – the so-called ‘linguistic relativity’ principle.
Even though Whorf’s ideas have been criticized by many, a more nuanced version is still widespread within cognitive science and linguistics, and in the past ten years attention has shifted towards second language learning. Furthermore, back in those days we might have found the scientists philosophizing in their office or observing language use in a jungle tribe. Nowadays the ‘neo-Whorfian’ scientists spend their time in high-tech research labs, conducting experiments with advanced technologies such as eye-tracking and virtual reality.
One of those scientists is Dr. Monique Flecken – a research staff member of the Neurobiology of Language Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Starting out as a linguist, she became interested in the relation between language and cognition and now conducts experiments to study how our first and second language influence our way of looking at the world. The term ‘neo-Whorfian’ made Monique laugh. Even though she considers her work to fall within this category, she does not like to refer to Whorf: “I think it is a bit outdated. This guy just had some random ideas that he didn’t even test, his books are just a rant about what he was thinking in the moment”. She tells me that she never cites his work, “because there are universalists and traditional linguists who might read it and be like ‘ooh this crazy guy!’”.
But Monique tells me that it’s actually not crazy at all to assume that language would shape your cognition in certain ways, especially if you approach it from a cognitive or neuroscientific perspective. “It’s more than logical to accept influences of language on perception, because the whole view on the brain and cognition is that it’s flexible and that it’s based on your prior knowledge and prior experiences. And a lot of our experience is linguistic experience, as it just happens to be the case that we are ‘languaging beings’”.
Does this mean that when you learn a second language, your brain will adapt, resulting in a different world view? Monique explains that it is not that straightforward, as the research findings are quite mixed. “But overall I think that what most studies show is that if you have a lot of exposure and experience to a second language, which might have different or new concepts from your first language, then you can alter the way you talk about things and to some extent also how you view the world”. But this is easier said than done, because even though you may sound native-like in your second language, you might still rely on your first-language strategies to process or prepare speech. Monique says that this is so habituated, that “only with a lot of exposure to a second language, you can retrain the cognitive system”.
“Now participants are looking at avatars, which can be quite spooky”.
To study this, Monique invites second language speakers to the lab. Participants read or listen to speech, or they might simply watch short video clips. At the same time Monique measures their brain activity or observes where their attention goes by looking at eye movements. “I like methods that can give you some temporal precision, such as EEG and eye-tracking, so you know what the person’s immediate response is to something”, Monique says. She is currently also working on a project with Virtual Reality, in which participants are completely ‘immersed’ in a scene. Even though it sounds like a very cool method, Monique is not completely convinced: “Sometimes I have my doubts about Virtual Reality, about the extent to which it is more ‘realistic’. Most of the stimuli that I used so far are naturalistic videos of people who are doing stuff at home, which is already quite natural. And now they’re looking at avatars, which can be quite spooky also. But you can better control for certain things in this environment, so we’ll have to see.”
Monique thus tries to make her experiments as naturalistic as possible, but what do the small differences that she finds tell us? Is it something that we could notice in daily life? “These differences may be something very subtle”, Monique says, “like a different view, or a different perspective that somebody takes on a situation. It might be the case that these differences are really that small, that you can only measure them in experiments”. Some scientists have taken this to dismiss the role that language plays in shaping cognition, such as John McWhorter, who wrote a book titled The Language Hoax – Why the world looks the same in any language. I read aloud a quote from the book: “Language’s effect on thought is distinctly subtle and, overall, minor. Not uninteresting – but nevertheless, minor.” Monique laughed and replied: “Well, it depends on how you view it. Of course it’s minor in the sense that it doesn’t hinder or constrain us in any way. We say ‘okay, look, there are differences in this and this domain’, and then some people take it one step further and they think that we mean something like ’so this means that these guys are stupid’ or ‘that these guys cannot say this or think this’. But that is definitely not the case, it’s just about what you’re habituated to or what is the most automatic behaviour.”
“I like to think that I could learn it if I wanted to, to think in this way..”
Yet even though differences are often subtle, there are still languages that express things that are hard to imagine for those who don’t speak it. For example Australian Aboriginal languages, in which cardinal directions (‘to the east’ instead of ‘left’ or ‘right’) are used to describe locations. This seems unthinkable for most Western people, but Monique is optimistic: “I like to think that I could learn it if I wanted to, to think in this way.. I could train myself with a compass or something. I wouldn’t say that not speaking this language system constrains me in being able to do something. It’s just what’s the most automatized in your system that is influenced by language”.
Learning a second language could thus – subtly – change your worldview, at least when you have had a lot of exposure to it, and have been immersed in the culture for some time. So if you really want to expand your horizon, better drop those word lists and get yourself a one-way ticket!