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How do you feel your language and culture shape the way you think?

Continuing the conversation from Hetain Patel’s incredible TEDGlobal Talk and Found In Translation Session that followed, we wanted to ask: how does the language you speak shape the way you think? Do you still live in your country of birth and if not, have your behaviour and identity evolved to incorporate this different culture? How does the way you communicate differ depending on the language you are speaking?

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    Jun 28 2013: I think language limits many, if not all of your conscious thoughts (unless you're similar to Temple Grandin). How can we clearly know or realize something if we cannot explain it. Even if it's possible to know something you don't have words for, that knowledge is bordering on useless without a way to be expressed. In Theory of Knowledge, our teacher said some mountain tribe had something like 40 words for different kinds of snow. In english, we probably have about four (not including modifiers or calculated at all, but feel free to correct me). Our knowledge of snow is limited by our lack of words describing snow.

    As far as culture, I think it barely shaped the way I think, especially compared to language. I think many of the things that my culture values or believes I may have initially blindly accepted, but now I have questioned many of my past beliefs and philosophies, so that all that now remains are my opinions that may coalesce with my cultures, but are still my ideas.
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    Jun 27 2013: I have lived entirely in one country and, for all practical purposes, speak only one language, though I have encountered the challenge sometimes of conveying the meaning of a phrase in another language that I cannot quite capture in English. Words and particularly phrases, do not necessarily translate one-to-one, particularly when one includes connotation.

    When for a number of years I taught secondary school, I was now and then in a position of having my feedback to a student simultaneously translated to a student or parent. I might be conveying areas in which a student could improve and suggestions for doing that, but in translation it looked to me as if the translator had injected a sense of urgency or drama that was not part of my meaning. But I might just have misunderstood the level of loudness and speed and the meaning of the translator's accompanying gestures.

    Of course even within a language people carry different associations with the same word. Many people choose their words differently depending on the context- whether they are speaking to children, in a professional setting that has a language and style of discourse peculiar to that community, or in a social setting with participation across a wide spectrum of people. The language of one setting can totally put people off in another.

    I believe people's cultural upbringing conjures up different images, attitudes, and behaviors about "respect", as an example. There are also certain preoccupations that arise, I think, from the religious teachings of ones early years as well as the economic conditions of ones youth. Those of us who grew up in families of extremely modest means, for example, may through our lives be more conscious of waste or of how much things cost, whether things are necessary or frivolous.
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      Jun 28 2013: I completely agree with you. Language is only a tool. A good, gorgeous tool, but only a tool. We humans have the power to find and use many other ways to communicate. But, having told this, I think that language, and, of course, culture, shape the way we think strong and intensely.
  • Jul 27 2013: Language defines where the street light is for those who look for lost keys under the streetlight.
    Its use determines where we have developed dexterity to solve problems.

    There are visual thinkers, but even then, a visual vocabulary is shaped by what you have seen...

    Thank you for asking.
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    Jul 4 2013: What do you mean?
    I am a product of the culture I live in.
    And it shapes what I do every day.
    Meaning there is no freedom but obedience.
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    Jun 30 2013: I read about a experiment conducted among blingual people where they turns out in answering the same question choose different options when using different languages.That results from different word association is triggered in different languages in the decision making process.That could be an example of how language infliunce our thinking.
  • Jun 28 2013: It would be difficult to overestimate how much language and culture shape the way we think.

    I took Latin and German in high school and was very impressed by the concepts that other languages use. Many people know only one language. There must be thousands of concepts in other languages, and those people are not even aware of their existence, much less understand.

    Culture is a huge part of our identity. Our first lessons as children are all cultural, from getting dressed, how and what we eat, how we address our parents and family members, etc. One major influence of culture is our attitude toward technology; that is one of the big differences between Eastern and Western culture.

    I suspect that most of the big ways that language and culture influence us are unconscious. If everything was red, there would be no word for red. Similarly, many of the influences of culture are so prevalent that we remain unaware of them until we contact people from other cultures that are different. Unfortunately many people immediately jump to the conclusion that different is wrong. The lack of understanding between East and West has been going on for centuries and there is no end in sight.

    I cannot imagine myself in a different culture. If I had been born in a different culture the person I am would never have come into existence.
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      Jun 28 2013: I fully agree that the big ways language and culture influence us are surely unconscious, at least until the point that we notice a difference between those raised in a different culture and ourselves. You highlight the difference in cultural parameters that mark an Eastern perspective and a Western. But I often notice that I am missing a dimension of clear shared understanding and assumption when, say, Catholics and former Catholics are speaking, or more broadly Christians and former Christians. I think those born and raised in rural areas may well have a different underlying way of organizing new visual information, (for example, what is noticed and what isn't) than do those who have always lived in dense urban areas.

      Something taken as "common sense" is, I think, common often only within one cultural context and may be Non-sense in another.
      • Jun 28 2013: Very good points, Fritzie.

        The East/West divide is often in my thoughts because our soldiers are in Afghanistan; also I cannot condone what I consider a very casual attitude regarding the innocents in Pakistan whom we are killing with our drone attacks.

        Your point about urban/rural reminded me of when I lived in downtown Anchorage for a few years. My apartment was right in the center of town and my work was two blocks away. If I did not get out of that area for two or three weeks straight, I would become uncomfortable due to constantly being surrounded by tall buildings. I think it was due to exactly what you pointed out, the organization of visual information. It definitely did not feel claustrophobic; I have experienced that feeling, and it was not the same at all. I grew up in a residential suburb with plenty of open spaces.