Language Shaping Thought

Learning a foreign language can be like entering a new world. New words, new sounds, new idioms. I love that in Czech you don’t kill two birds with one stone but kill two flies with one swat (zabít dvě mouchy jednou ranou). It seems more real. I’ve never thrown a stone at a bird – but flies…

Do differences like this mean a bigger difference between speakers of different languages? The answer is yes according to Dr Barbara Schmiedtová.

Dr Schmiedtová is an associate professor at the Institute for German as Foreign Philology at Heidelberg University. Her main area of study is aspect. Aspect shows a speaker’s thoughts on an action. In English we often think of an action as finished or in process. For example, the continuous tenses show something in process and the simple and perfect show an action as finished. According to Dr Schmiedtová, that these aspects exist can influence how a person thinks, speaks about and remembers an action.

She studied the different ways English and German speakers describe an action. She showed two groups of people a short film of two women walking on a road with a house in the distance. As we know, English has the continuous perspective and German does not. Dr Schmiedtová said that the English participants said, “Two women are walking along the road.” The German group said, “The two women are walking to the house.”

Dr Schmiedtová said that language – particularly the aspect – is influencing how people choose to describe the situation. She calls this choice ‘conceptual preference’. The English speakers have a continuous aspect and so ‘prefer’ to talk about the process. The Germans, without the continuous, focus on the result.

If a language has this perspective, and how it influences thought doesn’t, always match with language groups. English is considered a Germanic language but when we speak about process, it has more in common with French, Arabic, Russian and Spanish. Where does Czech fit? Dr Schmiedtová says that her research shows that Czech has more in common with endpoint languages, especially German.

Interestingly, Dr Schmiedtová suggests that a multilingual person is one who shifts between different ways of thinking. Her research shows that most of the people speaking their second language use conceptual preferences from their first language. This means an English person speaking in German will still focus more on the process.

Word of the day: Slight: In this context, slight means small. Slight can also mean to be rude to someone by ignoring them on purpose

Dr Schmiedtová’s research basically highlights the slight differences in how our mother tongue influences our thought, especially the more instant reactions.

“Overall, there is still a lot of work to be done bridging between fundamental linguistics and psycholinguist research and applied linguistics,” she said.

Original article by Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team

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Learning a foreign language is like entering a new world. We learn so many new and different things. But do those differences mean people who speak different languages think differently? The answer is yes according to Dr Barbara Schmiedtová, though it is not simple.

Word of the Day: Specialty: A specialty can be an area in which a person is a specialist. ‘Grammar is my specialty.’ It can also be the food from a region or country. ‘Svičková is a Czech specialty’

Dr Schmiedtová is an associate professor at the Institute for German as Foreign Philology at Heidelberg University. Her specialty is aspect. Aspect shows how a speaker views an action. In English, aspect can be finished or in process. For example, the continuous tenses show something in process and the simple and perfect show an action as finished. According to Dr Schmiedtová, these aspects influence how a person thinks.

With the verb ‘arrive’ we say ‘arrive in’ for a country, city or neighbourhood; ‘arrive at’ for a building such as the office, school, train station, and ‘arrive on’ for islands or planets.

She has studied how English and German speakers describe an action. She showed a short film of two women walking on a road with a house in the distance to people who speak these languages. Dr Schmiedtová said that the English speakers said, “Two women are walking along the road.” The German group said, “The two women are walking to the house.” In fact, the video didn’t show the women arriving at the house.

Dr Schmiedtová concludes that the aspect is influencing how people choose to describe the situation. She calls this choice ‘conceptual preference’. The English speakers have a continuous aspect and so ‘prefer’ to talk about the process. Because the Germans don’t have the continuous, they focus on the result.

Although English is classed as a Germanic language it has more in common with French, Arabic, Russian and Spanish because it has the continuous. Where does Czech fit? Dr Schmiedtová says that her research shows that Czech has more in common with endpoint languages, especially German.

Dr Schmiedtová suggests that a person’s first language influences their conceptual preference in their second language. Her research shows that “the vast majority of the L2-speakers use conceptual preferences from their respective L1.” For example an English person speaking in German will still focus more on the process.

However, Schmiedtová’s research may not influence the classroom now.

“Overall, there is still a lot of work to be done bridging between fundamental linguistics and psycholinguist research and applied linguistics,” she said.

Original article by Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia. Text edited by the Word’s methodology team

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Learning a foreign language can be like stepping into a new world. New words, new sounds, new idioms. I love that in Czech you don’t kill two birds with one stone but kill two flies with one swat (zabít dvě mouchy jednou ranou). It just seems so more direct and attainable. I’ve never thrown a stone at a bird – but flies…let’s just say I hope God isn’t on the flies’ side.

But do these differences add up to some greater difference between speakers of different languages? Do they think differently? The answer is yes according to Dr Barbara Schmiedtová, though not in the way I had assumed.

Dr Schmiedtová is an associate professor at the Institute for German as Foreign Philology at Heidelberg University. Her main area of study is aspect. Put very simply, aspect shows a speaker’s perspective on an action. In English we tend to treat an action as finished or in process. Think of the continuous tenses which show something in process and the simple and perfect which treat an action as finished. According to Dr Schmiedtová, the existence of these aspects or not can influence how a person thinks, speaks about and remembers an action.

She has studied the different ways English and German speakers describe an action. She screened a short film of two women walking on a road with a house in the distance to people from the two groups. As we know, English has the continuous perspective and German does not. Dr Schmiedtová said that the English participants said, “Two women are walking along the road.” The German group said, “The two women are walking to the house.”

The result was especially interesting because the video doesn’t show the women reaching the house. Dr Schmiedtová concludes that language – particularly the aspect – is influencing how people choose to describe the situation. She calls this choice ‘conceptual preference’. The English speakers have a continuous aspect and so ‘prefer’ to talk about the process. Because the Germans don’t have the continuous, they focus on the result. Other experiments showed a difference in memory. When shown similar clips, German speakers (78%) were better able to remember the end result than the English speakers (50%). These findings are further supported by eye-tracking, i.e. using computers to follow where a person looks at a screen.

Whether or not a language has this perspective and the way it influences thought doesn’t dovetail neatly with language groups. English is classed as a Germanic language but in terms of focusing on process has more in common with French, Arabic, Russian and Spanish. Where does Czech fit? Dr Schmiedtová says that her research shows that Czech has more in common with endpoint languages, especially German.

Interestingly, Dr Schmiedtová suggests that a multilingual person is one who shifts between different ways of thinking. “What is for sure is the following: a bilingual or multilingual person is not a sum of monolingual persons (or systems) in one mind,” she said. Rather her research shows that “the vast majority of the L2-speakers use conceptual preferences from their respective L1.” For example an English person speaking in German will still focus more on the process.

Word of the day: Arguably is used to mean that a statement is open to dispute but could be defended in an argument

It’s early days yet whether these findings will enter the classroom. In many ways – arguably in most ways – people can attain native or near-native proficiency in a target language through time, exposure and effort. Dr Schmiedtová’s research essentially highlights the subtle differences in how our mother tongue influences our thought, especially the more instantaneous reactions. At the moment no lessons focusing on this have been done.

“Overall, there is still a lot of work to be done bridging between fundamental linguistics and psycholinguist research and applied linguistics,” she said.

The notion of linguistic relativism – that language shapes thought – has been criticized in the linguistic community. Dr Schmiedtová acknowledges that some claims made in the name of relativism are absurd – just because people say something different doesn’t mean they think different. She is much more interested in the non-language evidence such as eye-tracking, speech onset and memory, which highlight differences among speakers to challenge the opposition to relativism. But this doesn’t mean our languages ultimately divide us.

“What unites humans, in my opinion, is the diversity in their expression of thought and language and their ability to recognize these differences and take them into account.”

Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia

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