Sunday, 12 October 2014

Could we increase ideas' diversity by simply switching languages?

'Language' by
<leonie di vienna> under
a CC license
The idea that language and thought are interconnected is not new. Discussion is very much ongoing on whether it is the language which is shaped by perception or vice-versa. A number of interesting examples surface from time to time, demonstrating the link among language, perception and - possibly - thinking.

For instance, Pormpuraawans, an aboriginal community in Australia, use cardinal directions in their speech (north, south, east, west) instead of relative ones (left, right). This seems to be associated with a very high awareness of orientation, even indoors. As described by L. Boroditsky, those people, when given a series of cards representing images of temporal nature (such as an aging man), they used the east-west orientation to put them in order, while subjects using English would use a left-to-right order and Hebrew speakers a right-to-left order for the same thing.

While all those are, indeed, interesting, I find intriguing the idea that by simply switching languages our perception of reality may shift. I sounds like being able to change viewpoint above a problem or think out-of-the-box taking that one easy step (if one is bilingual or multilingual, of course).

I do remember one of the teachers of mine supported that in order to learn and then master a language one should stop merely translating from one's mother tongue to the new language but, instead, think what one needs to say in the new language altogether. I know, it sounds confusing but there may be some truth in that advice. To my small experience, different population groups think differently, their language often reflects that and using that language helps a foreigner understand that different way of thinking, at least if he/she has been exposed to the corresponding culture.

Should the facts be right and the hypothesis on the 2-way link between language and thinking be valid, there is certainly considerable potential here. Imagine that one could instantly enhance opinion diversity simply by having a group discuss a topic in a different language or by keeping notes - and later reviewing them - in a different language or, even, by producing - at a later stage - a summary of thoughts and decisions in a different language. Alternatively, in a more traditional approach, one could try mixing people with different mother tongues in the same working group, although that may not always be feasible or practical. Some thoughts on activities, actions or interventions that may sound less likely to be successful or too unconventional in one language may sound perfectly reasonable or manageable in another. That could be simply because the two languages may be linked to societal perception of different dynamism. Of course, all that assumes that people are well immersed in the second language they use, which typically happens when they have a very good level in that language. Such people, however, are increasingly more common today. There is, unfortunately, the catch that regardless of how good or bad something sounds in a discussion, implementing a decision will be having its own effect (good or bad) independently of the discussion that preceded. Still though, views diversity should be a plus for identifying problems, solution, risks and opportunities.

At any rate, while not the only such approach, this is a route that should be easy to explore since there is no extra cost involved (since most people tend to know a second language, anyway). Maybe it will prove too good to be true, maybe not. Well, having said that, it will be feeling rather awkward and unconventional, at least at the beginning, but - hey - there is no real harm in trying that once or twice :-). After all, because of the internet, international collaboration, globalisation, world politics, etc., using a language different to one's mother tongue is not that rare any more...

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