Tag Archives: language

Language’s Influence on Culture

I’ve written before about Lera Boroditsky’s fascinating research into how language affects thinking, and a recent article by Boroditsky in The Wall Street Journal covers similar ground, asking Does language influence culture?

The answer, it seems, is yes:

  • Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
  • Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
  • The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
  • In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn’t remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: [“The vase broke” or “The vase was broken”], rather than “John broke the vase.”

For some amazing examples of these traits in practice, the article describes many studies Boroditsky and her colleagues conducted that will make you rethink how much of our cultural differences may be down to our different languages.

Foreign Accents Make Statements Less Trustworthy

Due to the principles of processing fluency (also known as cognitive fluency, discussed here many times before), we know that information that is easier to process is perceived to be–among other features–more familiar, pleasant, truthful and less risky.

A recent study has shown that this is also true for foreign accents: statements spoken by non-native speakers are perceived to be less trustworthy, even if their accent is mild:

Non-native speech is harder to understand than native speech. We demonstrate that this “processing difficulty” causes non-native speakers to sound less credible. People judged trivia statements such as “Ants don’t sleep” as less true when spoken by a non-native than a native speaker. When people were made aware of the source of their difficulty they were able to correct when the accent was mild but not when it was heavy. This effect was not due to stereotypes of prejudice against foreigners because it occurred even though speakers were merely reciting statements provided by a native speaker. Such reduction of credibility may have an insidious impact on millions of people, who routinely communicate in a language which is not their native tongue.

via Mind Hacks

Vowel Sounds and Price Perceptions

How the vowels in words are pronounced has an influence on how we perceive the size of an item. This ‘phonetic symbolism’ has also been shown to effect how we perceive prices:

Researchers have known for 80 years about a symbolic connection between speech and size: back-of-the-mouth vowels like the “o” in “two” make people think of large sizes, whereas people associate front-of-the-mouth vowels like “ee” with diminutiveness. Marketers can use this effect to make consumers think a discount is bigger or smaller than it truly is. […]

In one experiment, researchers told consumers the regular and sale prices of a product, asked them to repeat the sale price to themselves, and then, a few minutes later, told them to estimate the size of the discount in percentage terms. Products with “small-sounding” sale prices (like $2.33) seemed like better deals than products with “big-sounding” sales prices (like $2.22).

In another experiment, the researchers used a pair of sale prices — $7.88, which sounds “big” in English, and $7.01, which sounds “small” — but are the other way around in Chinese. Chinese and English speakers had opposite perceptions of the products’ relative value.

The authors of the study have also shown how, for discounted items, we perceive the discount on items to be larger when the right-most digit of its price is small (less than 5): the right digit effect.

Why Preserve Endangered Languages?

With his book on “the politics of language” due to be published next year, international correspondent for The Economist, Robert Lane Green, is interviewed in More Intelligent Life.

The discussion I find most intriguing is this on the saving of threatened world languages:

Half of today’s languages may be gone in a century. Is there a book that explains why we should care?

Unfortunately, I’ve tried and failed to find a utilitarian argument for preserving tiny languages. Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine failed to convince me with “Vanishing Voices”, which tied biodiversity to the preservation of endangered languages. They’re right in that small groups that speak threatened languages often know things about plant and animal species that are lost when their lands are “developed” and they are absorbed into the larger community. But that knowledge isn’t lost because the language is lost. It’s lost because the way of life is lost. If a modest tribe moved to the city and took urban jobs, their knowledge of rare plants and so on would disappear even if they kept their language. By contrast, if their traditional way of life were preserved, they could start speaking the bigger metropolitan language and keep their knowledge. (Contrary to a common belief, most things are perfectly translatable.)

So the reason to keep languages alive is really just because they are an irreplaceable part of our common human heritage. […] The thought of a planet a thousand years from now where everyone speaks just a few languages, or just one, depresses me

Bilingualism and Dementia

I’ve noted previously how child bilingualism improves the “executive functions” and a recent study has corroborated these findings while also discovering how bilingualism can stave off dementia in old age:

[Psychologist Ellen Bailystok] wanted to explore whether enhanced executive control actually has a protective effect in mental aging—specifically, whether bilingualism contributes to the “cognitive reserve” that comes from stimulating social, mental and physical activity. She studied a large group of men and women with dementia, and compared the onset of their first symptoms. The age of onset for dementia was a full four years later in bilinguals than in patients who had lived their lives speaking just one language. That’s a whopping difference. Delaying dementia four years is more than any known drug can do, and could represent a huge savings in health care costs.

Is there any downside to bilingualism? Yes. […] Bialystok’s studies also found that bilinguals have less linguistic proficiency in either of their two languages than do those who only speak that language. They have somewhat smaller vocabularies, for example, and aren’t as rapid at retrieving word meanings. But compared to the dramatic cognitive advantages of learning a second language, that seems a small price to pay.

via @siibo