Saturday, June 26, 2010

What Happens When You Drop a Cup?

They say there's something called reality. But our perception of reality isn't always the same. The way people see what's happening around them – or how they happen – could sometimes be so varied that an incident may look quite different when you hear it described by two individuals.

OK, this is nothing new; we know it's human nature. It's well known that how someone interprets reality is influenced by that person's background and past experience. And it seems that the language we speak also plays a certain role in this regard.

One clear example happens to be the way speakers of different tongues tend to visualise the act of inadvertently 'dropping' something. We know it happens to all of us. We pick up a cup to drink something – or perhaps to wash it – but we somehow lose the grip. The next thing you know, the cup lies in pieces on the ground.

Obviously, hardly anybody does it intentionally. But the English language depicts it as something done by the person handling the cup: ‘I dropped the cup’, ‘He/She dropped the cup’… are among the standard sentences one would use to describe the happening. Even though no one probably means that it was done on purpose, there still seems to be a thinly veiled apportioning of some responsibility to the person involved.

Other languages, however, happen to view the same event somewhat differently. Both German and French have expressions that say ‘I let the cup fall’, i.e. ‘Ich habe die Tasse fallen lassen’ and ‘J’ai laiss√© tomber la tasse’ respectively. Now you might argue that ‘dropping something’ and ‘letting something fall' would be the same thing. Maybe yes, but for my part I still feel a slightly higher nuance of responsibility in the English way.

Then come Spanish and many Asian languages that have a distinctly different way of talking about such a thing. Spanish speakers generally would say ‘Se me cay√≥ la taza’ – which roughly translates as ‘The cup fell from me’. So in this case there's no denying the lessened sense of responsibility on the part of the human being. The object has rather fallen of its own free will. 

It looks as if our mother tongue influences, without even our knowledge, how we think of what takes place in our world. Some even claim that this simple example illustrates a fundamental difference in the world view of people speaking these different languages. It's said that English speakers are conditioned by their language itself to assume more personal responsibility for things happening around them while speakers of languages like Spanish are allowed to see them more as a result of destiny. The latter is true of many Asian languages too.

Though this laid-back attitude of Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, for example, has been blamed by some US sociologists for the general backwardness of the South American countries, its opposite present in the English language probably explains the higher rates of neuroticism observed in US society too. Asians were also considered that way by the Westerners some time back, but the current developments in the Asian region show that its residents aren't quite letting destiny decide everything for them.

(Image credit: Gunjan Karun

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Two Languages, Two Minds?

We all have a mother tongue. And we have our native culture, which is often at least partially associated with that language. But what happens when people learn a second language that comes from a different cultural background? Do they learn just the language? Or can't they avoid getting a certain dose of the culture associated with it too?

Studies have discovered that bilingual people tend to partially change their personalities based on which language they're speaking at a given time. Those tested have been Hispanic Americans and they've shown the general pattern of being more assertive and independent while speaking English than when they speak their native Spanish.

This must be due to the more individualistic characteristics inherent in the US culture, which is associated with the English they've learned. It would be interesting to consider how people elsewhere react to the different cultural norms connected with the second languages they're learning. Do Turkish immigrants in Germany also display traits peculiar to the Germans when they make use of the adopted tongue? That may well be possible since effectively learning a new language generally involves studying - and in the process being also influenced by - the culture of its native speakers. Though you may not set out to be subjected to this force as you begin to pick up the language, there's no way a language can be mastered without a deep understanding of the thinking and behavioural patterns of the setting where it is mainly spoken.

The masses learning English in countries where the Anglo-Saxon ways are practically abhorred, like for example the Arab lands, or where Western values are considered decadent, like China (at least until a few years ago), must have a particularly hard job; they too need to learn the by-now international language while at the same time trying to keep its cultural influence at bay. One must wonder whether this is quite possible. After all, there are a lot of positive aspects of the prominent English-speaking milieu that would appeal to an intelligent mind, like punctuality or accountability, despite there also being negative nuances like the rampant materialism.

Then of course we find places like India, where English, though initially introduced by the despised British colonial forces, has meanwhile become as good as a local vernacular. In a land where hundreds of regional dialects and more than twenty official languages are used, English has blended seamlessly into the local setting, leaving behind its foreignness almost entirely. It is in such spots that one would probably expect to find the least that has to do with the mindset of the original speakers. Nevertheless, some vestiges of it can be found with the English speakers there as well, to be seen more distinctly in the urban environment. And today's Indian urbanites are being influenced even more by American culture, which has come to be almost inseparably associated with the English language worldwide in our age.

(Image credit: daveynin
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