The future may belong to the Indians, or perhaps the Africans—or anyone who grows up in a multilingual environment.  Adding to the evidence of the benefits to the brain of speaking multiple languages is the research of Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University.  (Newsweek article by Sharon Begley.)

When the world's tallest vehicular bridge,* the Viaduc de Millau, opened,

German newspapers described how it "floated above the clouds" with "elegance and lightness" and "breathtaking" beauty. In France, papers praised the "immense" "concrete giant." Was it mere coincidence that the Germans saw beauty where the French saw heft and power?

Not coincidental, and also not conforming to my stereotypes, in which Germans focus on strength and organization while the French are concerned with beauty and grace.  However, 

In German, the noun for bridge, Brücke, is feminine. In French, pont is masculine. German speakers saw prototypically female features; French speakers, masculine ones. 

Nor is this an isolated phenomenon.

Germans describe keys (Schlüssel) with words such as hard, heavy, jagged, and metal, while to Spaniards keys (llaves) are golden, intricate, little, and lovely. Guess which language construes key as masculine and which as feminine?

Our language shapes not only our thoughts but our very ability to see.  People whose language has more precise words discern differences faster and better.  Russian, for example, has separate words for what English calls different shades of blue; experimenters found native Russian speakers to be faster than English speakers at distinguishing the differences.

Similarly, Korean uses one word for "in" when one object is in another snugly (a letter in an envelope), and a different one when an object is in something loosely (an apple in a bowl). Sure enough, Korean adults are better than English speakers at distinguishing tight fit from loose fit.

In Australia, the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre use compass directions for every spatial cue rather than right or left, leading to locutions such as "there is an ant on your southeast leg." The Kuuk Thaayorre are also much more skillful than English speakers at dead reckoning, even in unfamiliar surroundings or strange buildings.

There's more to this than the obvious thought that knowing multiple languages opens the mind to more ways of thinking and perceiving. The most potent statement in the article is this:

Having a name for something allows you to perceive it more sharply.

People have wondered why I am so interested in the idea of sharing "encyclopedic knowledge" (sometimes derided as "baby flash cards") with very young children.  (I've written a small bit about it at Jonathan's Happy Hunger.) This connection between naming and perception underscores one of the primary reasons:  the more one knows, the more one sees...and generally, the more one enjoys, as well.  Whether it's birds or automobiles or paintings or constellations, knowledge increases both observation and enjoyment, which in turn increase appreciation, respect, and the desire for more knowledge.

Maybe if Adam had taught Eve the names he gave to all those animals, her thirst for knowledge wouldn't have led her in the wrong direction.  


*The second tallest?  The New River Gorge Bridge along Route 19 in West Virginia, which we take en route to Pittsburgh.  It was the tallest until 2004.
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:27 am | Edit
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Can't help wondering if the following statement also explains American fashion?

"Sure enough, Korean adults are better than English speakers at distinguishing tight fit from loose fit."

Posted by dstb on Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Ooo - good point. Sounds more like D than S, though. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, August 14, 2009 at 7:52 am
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