“To have a second language is to have a second soul.” – Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor

22 Apr

Last week, my fantastic GSI for my Cultural Psychology class recommended a guest lecture that was taking place on campus, a talk titled “How does language shape the way we think?” given by Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor at the ‘furd. (http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/) Despite my weekly Friday ritual at Bear’s Lair’s “Beat the Clock,” I cleared two hours in my afternoon to attend the talk, and I am so glad I did.

I am working on a mock research proposal for this same class which will examine whether or not there are differences in levels of independence and interdependence between Spanish speakers who also speak Catalan or who only speak Spanish, with the idea being that those who speak Catalan have more groups to identify with and thus are more individualistic. I’m still working on the paper, but I’ve realized I have a genuine interest in languages and how they shape the way we think. When I was in Barcelona, I found myself thinking in Spanish a veces and once in awhile talking outloud to myself en espanol. My brief foray into Portuguese also allowed me to tap into that culture for a little bit, and I really feel that learning a language (or at least making an attempt) can give a person a much greater understanding of another’s culture (as well as allowing them greater insight into their own beliefs and values).

Anyway, this talk had lots of elements that I found fascinating. For instance, different languages divide up the “color space” differently. In English, for example, we have one word for “blue” with many colors that fall within that category (cobalt, cyan, navy, baby blue, etc). In Russian, however, there are two distinct colors that we would label blue – and this difference affects how speakers of Russian are able to discern colors. Also, if you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language like German, French, or Spanish, you’ve encountered this idea of “gender.” I remember when I first learned Spanish finding it beyond bizarre that an inanimate object like a table or book could be feminine or masculine. Boroditsky shared some data suggesting that these labels affect how these individuals perceive these objects. In one study, German and Spanish speakers were shown a photograph of a bridge. In German, this word is feminine: brücke, and in Spanish it is masculine: el Puente. When these speakers were asked to use one word to describe the bridge in English (a language without gender), German speakers gave more “feminine” words like “pretty” while Spanish-speakers offered words like “sturdy” and “powerful.” The languages we speak actively affect our thought processes.

Boroditsky also incorporated some elements that may be a little bit more relevant in our everyday lives – like the fact that people are more likely to marry someone whose last name begins with the same last name as their own, or that people named Dennis/Denise are disproportionately more likely to become dentists (and the same with Laurie/Lawrence and lawyers).

The talk spurred my interest in this area of research, and I am becoming increasingly anxious to learn whether or not I’ll be able to go back to Spain (to work on my Spanish and improve other people’s English-speaking ability) and to soak up the other aspects of culture that aren’t merely limited to the language of that area.

One Response to ““To have a second language is to have a second soul.” – Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor”

  1. Steve April 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    A master's in Catalan Identity might be handy…

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