Without looking at a compass, can you tell what cardinal direction you're facing right now? Probably not. But the indigenous people of Australia's Pormpuraaw community most definitely could. You see, the concepts of “left” and “right” don't exist in the Pormpuraawan language. Instead, the people of Pormpuraaw refer to the eight cardinal directions when talking about the place something occupies in space – and because of this seemingly insignificant linguistic difference, researchers have recently discovered that the people of Pormpuraaw exhibit almost superhuman spatial awareness.
Such is the power of language to influence how we view the world and even to alter our deepest cognitive functions. In fact, cognitive scientists are recently finding that language can not only influence our perception of space, but even of time, causality and the way we think.
In a revealing experiment conducted by Caitlin Fausey of Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese were asked to watch videos in which an actor accidentally spilled a drink. After watching the videos, the subjects were asked to remember the actor that perpetrated the accidental spilling.
The results were telling: Speakers of English – a language that almost always assigns agency to an action – had no difficulty remembering the actor. On the other hand, the Spanish and Japanese speakers were far less likely to remember who had spilled the drink. Both Spanish and Japanese often drop the agent from a sentence.
Now here's where things get mind-boggling: in another cognitive study, two groups of participants were shown a print story about Janet Jackson's infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”. The stories were identical except for the last line. The last line for the first group used the active “Justin Timberlake ripped the costume”, while the other group's line read in the passive (“the costume was ripped”).
Amazingly, the subjects in the first group were far more likely to blame Timberlake for the accident, and when asked to assign an appropriate fine, were inclined to demand a 53% higher dollar value than those in the second group.
All this would suggest that speakers of Japanese, who are less likely to assign agency in a sentence, might in fact also be more willing to let bygones be bygones when it comes to accidents, and may in fact be less likely to assign blame or fault in a given situation - a theory that Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky appears to support in a recent Wall Street Journal report.
These and other recent cognitive breakthroughs are beginning to paint a picture of how language defines us. And from there, it isn’t a huge logical leap to conclude that language must also be a driving factor for a culture’s social customs.
Could the Japanese language’s conservative application of agency be the story behind the infamous Japanese concept of “sho ga nai” (it can’t be helped)? If this language feature is what causes the Japanese to refrain from levying blame, could it also be the reason they so often see things as out of their control?
I certainly find myself constantly compelled to seek closure whenever misfortune strikes in my life – often by seeking out an outside force, identifying it as the cause, and attempting to rectify the situation. Likewise, I find myself frustrated with Japanese friends who seem content to languish in dead-end jobs or unfair working conditions, abusive relationships or unhealthy lifestyles.
This and other linguistic differences may also affect social interaction between people of different cultures. The Japanese appear to have no trouble approaching someone directly – good friend and distant acquaintance alike – and matter-of-factly observing that they’ve “become fat,” while English speakers will tiptoe around the issue, use euphemisms, or avoid making the observation entirely. Could this be because when an English speaker hears this criticism, they see themselves as to blame, while the Japanese simply see it a natural consequence of some outside force that cannot be confronted? Where an English speaker might blame himself (“I've really let myself go”), the Japanese might shrug and think, “Well, work has been busy lately.”
Could English speakers’ predilection for assigning blame, even to ourselves, also be the reason the Japanese cling to the stereotype of westerners as creatures of pride? Looking at it in that light, it makes sense that the normally modest Japanese might find Westerners themselves unusually reluctant to touch on topics that would affect their self image.
Let’s take it a step further: Was it Japan’s rigid social construction that gave rise to honorifics in Japanese, or was it the other way around? Does the mind automatically seek to strictly identify another's place in the social hierarchy when one’s language places such an emphasis on titles and formalities?
It’s no secret that Western and Japanese culture are vastly different. My American friends who have never been to Japan often like to observe that “Boy, the Japanese sure are weird!” But those same people – superficial differences aside – are far less likely to comment on how strange, say, Australians, who also speak English, are. This can’t possibly be a coincidence, can it?
So if differences in language lead to differences in thought process, and differences in thought process often lead to conflict and misunderstandings, how do we perfect international social interaction?
The answer is deceptively simple. As Lera Boroditsky writes, “It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too.”
Time to dust off those Japanese textbooks.© Japan Today