Every once in a while, I drop some comment about language being ‘un-language-like’ when I’m talking about culture. It’s a tick, aggravated by my envy of linguistic anthropology, my wish that bodily practice was studied in anthropology as much (or had produced as much cool theory), and by my secret insecurity that I never took a course from Michael Silverstein when I was at the University of Chicago (what can I say? I was busy…). Most readers probably overlook my comments about language, chalking them up to PGSSD (post grad-school stress disorder) or some moral failing that they don’t want to know any more about. But I feel compelled to explain, especially since I found this great article on French speakers disagreeing on the gender of nouns (thanks to Dr. X’s Free Associations and grant-writing avoidance behaviour on my part).
Too often I think anthropologists use language ‘to think with’ when they are talking about ‘culture.’ Language is a kind of subliminal or suppressed metaphor guiding how they talk about this thing, culture. It leads to various problems, such as ‘code’ metaphors, reification of ‘the language/culture’ in things like meme theory, and the like. That is, people say some pretty daft things about ‘culture’ guided by the analogy with language.
The problem is, they’re not just committing sloppy thinking about human variation, they also don’t generally have a very grounded, empirically based view of language. That is, they assume things about language that linguistic anthropologists would dispute, especially those coming from a pragmatic approach (like Silverstein, from whom i took no courses and thus feel inadequate to be writing this).
Well, every once in a while, web surfing drops the perfect example right in your lap.
Nature recently carried a short piece, Perception coloured by language (written by Kerri Smith), on several research papers, including one by Paul Kay at the University of California, Berkeley (well, actually, Kay is also the co-author on another of the three papers, too). The original article, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), is not openly accessible, but the abstract is here (Franklin et al. abstract). We’ve had a number of related posts on Neuroanthropology, including Daniel’s Language and Color, and my piece that the title of this one references, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of?
The subject of language learning’s effect on the brain is an especially important one for a number of reasons to us at Neuroanthropology (other than our tendency to flog the occasional dead horse); not only is language a frequent surrogate for more amorphous concepts like ‘culture,’ but it is also one of the capacities that, due to the work of Chomsky, is frequently believed to have innate foundations in the brain. Chomsky’s discussion of a language function innate in all human brains provides one of the foundational texts for much broader, sweeping assertions about ‘massive modularity’ in the brain covering a wide variety of functions.
Work by Kay’s team focused on the brain hemisphere used to classify colours. They tested subjects by showing them coloured targets randomly in their visual fields, and then seeing how long subjects could shift attention to the targets. As Smith writes:
It is well known that in adults, perception of colour is processed predominantly by the left hemisphere, which is also where most people process language. Studies have shown that the language one speaks can have an impact on the colour one sees.
I’ve been away from Neuroanthropology for a few days, typing my fingers numb working on a grant application for the Australian Research Council. I won’t go into it too much here (maybe later), but I will say that I have NEVER seen a more complicated, bureacratized, byzantine system than the ARC grant competition. I felt semi-conscious when I finished the ‘interactive’ budgeting section alone (I put ‘interactive’ in quotes only because the system would have to give the applicant something back to call it ‘interaction’). Many thanks, especially to Daniel, for covering my absence while I was ‘away,’ or at least pulling out clumps of hair trying to figure out what the instructions on the application were asking me to do.
But I’ve been wanting to post a number of things, including a recent article by Ashley Newton and Jill de Villiers that appeared in Psychological Science. Special thanks to Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily whose posting about this article drew it to my attention. (And Prof. Munger is also responsible for creating the ‘Blogging about refereed research’ system that we’re trying to work with on Neuroanthropology.)
Newton and de Villiers ran experiments in which subjects were asked to solve ‘false-belief’ problems, questions about how individuals would act when it was likely that they had developed false beliefs; for example, if the subject see Max watch Sam put food in one place, then Max leaves the room, only to have Same move the food to a new location. Will Max believe the food is in the first place, or in its actual location, when he returns to the room? These problems test the subject’s ability to reason about another person’s beliefs, even when they are false. Young children tend to get these problems wrong, saying that Max will look for the food in the new location because the child knows the food is there. Very young children do not recognize that Max will have a ‘false belief.’ (Alright, so ‘false belief’ problems aren’t that hard, but the researchers made the tasks a bit more difficult…)
Edge asked prominent scholars a great question, What Have You Changed Your Mind About?
Lera Boroditsky, in Cognitive Psychology at Stanford, called her post, “Do our languages shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the very way we see the world?” (And just for the record, I got turned onto this great collection at Edge by kerim’s post, Rethinking Language and Culture, over at Savage Minds, so please check what kerim has to say!)
Here’s the opening Boroditsky provides us:
“I used to think that languages and cultures shape the ways we think. I suspected they shaped the ways we reason and interpret information. But I didn’t think languages could shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the way we actually see the world. That part of cognition seemed too low-level, too hard-wired, too constrained by the constants of physics and physiology to be affected by language.”