Lost in Translation II, or Through the Looking Glass

One of the most fascinating articles I’ve read in years about how language shapes how we see the world appeared today in an article by Lera Boroditsky entitled, “Lost in Translation” (found here:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.html?mod=djemLifeStyle_h )

She describes how humans, through their 7,000-some-odd world languages, have created a structure that engages different cognitive parts of our brain.  For example, she describes how English is an agent-centered language, even if an accident is involved (“John broke the vase”), while Spanish or Japanese report the same accidental event by saying “the vase broke itself”. 

Look at how this plays out.  This fundamental view of the world around us substantially influences people’s view of life in the respective cultures.  Because English is agent oriented, it abhores use of the passive voice (“the vase broke itself”, equivalent to “the vase was broken”), always preferring to state the subject and then the action that subject took, in that order. This action-driven view of the world through our language profoundly influences our legal system and the way we comprehend what we see as proper and fair action to take in the case (punishment of the agent rather than restitution to the victim).

Studying another language is a unique study of the human brain.  Language and culture are as intricately entwined as a strand of DNA.  They are inescapable mates and provide a chicken/egg conundrum:  which came first, or at least, which one influences which?  I believe that they both continually reinforce one another. 

In order to really internalize and understand another culture, it is imperative to study its language.  Business people, government officials and public servants in contact with the myriad of nationalities in these United States would benefit immeasurably from learning a second language–not just to be able to communicate, but to experience a new sense of empathy with the foreign language speaker who behaves in a way that is culturally appropriate for his own upbringing and but strange to ours.

Short of pleading, “My language made me do it!”, communication and comprehension of any other-language-based culture truly begin at the fundamental level of word.

Contact Us

3555 Inverness Blvd
Carmel, IN 46032-9381 U.S.A

317.446.0951 (Main) 559.751.2878 (eFax)

Send us a note