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The link between language and perception

The link between language and perceptionThis guest post is contributed by Tisha Dotson, who writes on the topics of medical coding certification. She welcomes your comments at: tishadotson86 [at] gmail [dot] com.


A new question that many cognitive scientists have recently delved into is whether or not the language we speak affects the way we perceive the world. One way that neuroscientists have attempted to establish this link is through color perception. A Science Daily article reported on the findings by a research team out of State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences of The University of Hong Kong. The team found for the first time, through the analysis of brain activation patterns, that there does indeed exist a relationship between language and color perception.

Although this was the first time that substantive evidence has been found supporting the link, the idea is a relatively old one. Benjamin Lee Whorf but forth his "Whorfian Hypothesis in his book called "Language, Thought, and Reality" in 1956. Whorf hypothesized that a person's worldview is partially or completely determined by the language they speak. Much of Whorf's ideas were very speculative although linguists and cognitive scientists alike have returned to the question time and again.

For example, in her lecture/essay, Dr. Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University, outlines the basic studies that have been carried out in the past few years that explore the language-perception link. In one case, Boroditsky studied the Kuuk Thaayorre, a small Aboriginal community in Australia because of the way that they talk about space.

Boroditsky explained how in English we define space as it relates to the speaker. But the aboriginal group always defines space using cardinal-directional terms in almost every instance. For example, in response to a question like "Where are you going?" the Kuuk Thaayorre would say "Southeast, in the middle distance" instead "over there" or "left" or "forward."

Bordotisky then concluded:

"The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them ― in fact, forces them ― to do this is their language."
Another Globe and Mail news article recently explained why Russians may seem inordinately glum to non-native Russian speakers. A recent study found that while Russians do have a tendency to brood, they get over bad experiences with other people more quickly and don't hold grudges when compared to Americans. Igor Grossman, a doctoral candidate in psychology co-authored the report on the study. Grossman, a native Russian speaker surmised:

"Past research also shows that the meanings of positive words often have negative connotations for Russians, and the meanings of negative words often have positive connotations for Russians. There is some kind of dialectical thinking going on there, where they see the other side.

A book entitled "Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Different Languages" will be released in the United States at the end of the month. The book will further delve into the connection between language and perception, especially through the lens of color.

As medical translators, it is important to take into account the possible language-perception connection. When using a word that denotes some sort of emotion especially, consider what words are used in the original. Perhaps we can better approximate an emotion when translating not through a direct, dictionary translation but through a careful consideration of how native speakers may see and interact with their world. Seen through this light, it may be useful to check out the research available on cognitive processes and language.


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