To say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.
“All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”
This got Chen wondering: Is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, Chen wanted to know: does our language affect our economic decisions?
Chen designed a study — which he describes in detail in this blog post — to look at how language might affect individual’s ability to save for the future. According to his results, it does — big time.
While “futured languages,” like English, distinguish between the past, present and future, “futureless languages,” like Chinese, use the same phrasing to describe the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Using vast inventories of data and meticulous analysis, Chen found that huge economic differences accompany this linguistic discrepancy. Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers. (This amounts to 25 percent more savings by retirement, if income is held constant.) Chen’s explanation: When we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.
But that’s only the beginning. There’s a wide field of research on the link between language and both psychology and behavior. Here, a few fascinating examples:
Navigation and Pormpuraawans In Pormpuraaw, an Australian Aboriginal community, you wouldn’t refer to an object as on your “left” or “right,” but rather as “northeast” or “southwest,” writes Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky (and an expert in linguistic-cultural connections) in the Wall Street Journal. About a third of the world’s languages discuss space in these kinds of absolute terms rather than the relative ones we use in English, according to Boroditsky. “As a result of this constant linguistic training,” she writes, “speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.” On a research trip to Australia, Boroditsky and her colleague found that Pormpuraawans, who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, not only knew instinctively in which direction they were facing, but also always arranged pictures in a temporal progression from east to west.
Blame and English Speakers In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broke eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice bent toward punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims, Boroditsky argues.
Color among Zuñi and Russian Speakers Our ability to distinguish between colors follows the terms in which we describe them, as Chen notes in the academic paper in which he presents his research (forthcoming in the American Economic Review; PDF here). A 1954 study found that Zuñi speakers, who don’t differentiate between orange and yellow, have trouble telling them apart. Russian speakers, on the other hand, have separate words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). According to a 2007 study, they’re better than English speakers at picking out blues close to the goluboy/siniy threshold.
Gender in Finnish and Hebrew In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all, Boroditsky writes in Scientific American (PDF). A study done in the 1980s found that, yup, thought follows suit: kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)
This doesn’t surprise me. I’d also propose that since Chinese has no plural nouns, only context, that a greater sense of belonging to a group or community is present among native Chinese speakers, while English speakers feel more individualistic.
So I feel like everyone should immediately go read Ted Chiang’s amazing SF short story "The Story of Your Life," which is about learning an alien language that has an emphasis on knowing how the sentence about to spoken will end — which leads to an overall advanced understanding of time itself.
It’s a fantastic story. It’ll massively fuck with your mind. Read it.
I don’t know if a lot of people would read this but it is a really dark time in Korea.
About three days ago, the cruise ship Sewol, with about 350 high school students who were on their way to a field trip, sank.
The ship’s maximum boarding limit was 900 people. Only 430 people were on that boat but they could only rescue 80 people. 28 are dead, 11 of them are the Danwon High School students. and 268 are now missing. It’s been three fucking days and they say that the 250missing kids are unlikely to be alive.
The Ship’s captain was a 69 year old man who ordered a 26 year old new comer to steer the ship while he took a nap. When they started sinking, he told all the students to stay where they were and wait.
INSTEAD OF TELLING THE STUDENTS TO IMMEDIATELY RUN TO THE DECK, HE ANNOUNCED THEM TO STAY PUT WHILE HE ESCAPED VIA HELICOPTER
The ship started to sink around 9am and it took about two hours until the ship flipped over to the side. The crew members, however, apparently announced them to stay put while some of them managed to get on life boats or the chopper.
Funny thing is, the one who called the sink in wasn’t the captain or a crew member. IT WAS A PARENT who received messages from his kid who told him that the boat was starting to tip and water started flooding in.
Even after the initial report, it took the coastal guards an hour to check it out, not to rescue, but to see what was going on. After that, the whole navy seal, UDT, divers were on there way.
The ship turned over to its side and caused many of the kids who were still inside to injure themselves. The exits were blocked and unreachable and i believe many of the students did not make it out of the ship. Some people say that the kids inside could still be alive through air pockets but its been almost 72 hours since the sink and the most likely situation is that they are dead.
The one thing that pisses me off the most is the vile approach of the media and the social network services right now. News Networks are reporting unconfirmed facts to have “exclusive” news reports, confusing the entire nation about the current situation. Facebook and Twitter is full of bullshit government conspiracy theories, and some idiot fucks are making fake fb messages or posts from the victims still inside the ship. The SNS is also spreading vicious lies/unconfirmed facts about the sink and deliberately tricking many of us. I can’t believe anything right now because they report something one moment and then they apologize for it because it turns out that most of the facts were fake. What the fuck is wrong with this country. Reporters and journalists are badgering the survivors, survivors who barely made it alive and who suffer from extreme trauma. Their friends are DEAD and some dumb fucks want to traumatize them even further for a story.
Now honestly, I find it extremely hard to firmly believe that the missing 250 students are alive. It’s been three days, a storm hit the site, the water was freezing, The students who might have been able to make it out alive would not have survived the freezing sea.
I am frustrated because the ship, the captain and the crew members did a shitty job. They did not provide any safety announcements, and instead of calmly guiding and leading the students to safety, they were the first ones to escape. Leaving hundreds of 16, 17 year old high schools students to die.
It’s just too painful for me to watch the news right now. Some of my acquaintances have children who were on the boat and some of them still missing. I can’t imagine and never can understand the pain and frustration the parents might be feeling.
I can only pray for the safe return of the students or at least the recovery of all their bodies while they are still intact.
Please pray for us. Pray for the Students and the people still missing. Pray for the parents of the victims. Pray for our nation, Pray for Korea because it is a devastating time for all of us