Language matters

It is that time of the year when we are prompted to revisit language issues in our society.  In what language should we educate our children?  What language should the government use to communicate with our people?  What language should the courts in our country use? Is the bilingual policy that makes Filipino and English the official media of communication and instruction serving the national purpose? Are we doing enough to develop and enrich Filipino as the national language, as mandated by the Constitution?  These issues have remained contentious and unresolved:

Even as languages evolve on their own, nations find themselves having to choose which languages best work for them as they pursue specific goals and purposes.  As with persons, language preference ultimately mirrors a nation’s hierarchy of values.  In the post-colonial years, especially in those societies marked by cultural diversity, the designation of a national language was thought crucial to the task of nation-building and political integration. Today, nations that have premised their growth on being able to ride the tide of globalization find little need to develop their own languages.  They not only turn to English as the language of modernity; they also want to make it the lingua franca of their people.

This brings instant rewards to individuals who seek careers in the modern sector of the economy or in the global labor market.  But for the majority who remain in the country, the costs are immense. Education becomes an alienating experience for schoolchildren, who cannot use their own language to create and access knowledge. Social inequalities are exacerbated.  As English becomes a marker of class, a mechanism of exclusion, local languages are relegated to the margins of public discourse. Perhaps, most important of all, as we lose the use of our languages, we also break with our own basic orientations as a people.  This is especially a problem for the English-speaking Filipino intelligentsia who find that increasingly they can neither understand nor communicate with their own people.

Recent research on the connection between language and ways of seeing and thinking provides new evidence for the thesis that language is not just a carrier but a shaper of thought. These studies, echoing the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, shift the analysis from the nature of the mind to the uses of language.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal (07/23/10), Dr. Lera Boroditsky, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, discusses recent field experiments that show how language structures not just the way we see but the way we solve problems and accumulate knowledge about the world.  This is not a new idea at all.  But Dr. Boroditsky has come up with new material to prove the point.

Language, she argues, shapes our notions of space, time, and causality.  Such notions are not the same in all languages.  “About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space.”  Dr. Boroditsky and another colleague went to Australia to study the Pormpuraaw, an aboriginal group whose languages have no “terms like ‘left’ and ‘right.’  Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, ‘There’s an ant on your southwest leg.”  This astounding precision in the language for depicting space allows people like the Pormpuraaws to “build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions.”

Does the way we talk about space have any bearing on the way we talk about time? To find out, the researchers showed the Pormpuraaws some pictures indicating a progression of events – photos of a person or crocodile at different ages, or a banana being consumed in stages.  While seated, the subjects were repeatedly asked to arrange the photos in the correct temporal order, facing in a different direction each time.  English speakers arrange time from left to right.  Speakers of languages that are written from right to left, like Hebrew, Bororditsky says, arrange time from right to left.

But the Pormpuraaws depict time progression in an east-to-west direction.

Facing south, the subjects arranged the time photos from left to right.  Facing north, they arranged them right to left.  Facing east, they arranged them toward the body.  No one needed to tell them where east or west was.  In other languages, Boroditsky adds, the past may be represented as above, while the future is below (as in Mandarin).  “In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.”

What is true for time and space seems true as well for notions of causality.  In some languages, accidents are attributed to no one, whereas in others, the doer who caused the accident is identified, what witnesses saw is important, and blame is assigned.

This reminds me of a story that Michel Foucault tells in an interview.  A team of psychologists showed a short film about three characters to a village inAfrica, and then asked the viewers to recount the film in their own words.  They remembered nothing about the characters; only one thing engaged their attention: “the movement of the light and shadow through the trees.”

Language matters. We are formed by the language we speak. When we lose our language, we lose a part of ourselves. Ludwig Wittgenstein captured it so well in a crisp aphorism: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.  All I know is what I have words for.”