Language defines cognition

Sean linked me to a horrible BBC article (and I subsequently dug up a much better CNN article) about a small, isolated tribe in Brazil called the Piraha. These are a people with only two “numbers” in their vocabulary: “one”/”a few” and “many”. Their pronouns don’t indicate number at all; “he” and “they” are represented by the same word.

People from this tribe have difficulty doing complex mathematical problems involving counting more than three items. During research testing, adults were unable to learn the names of more numbers…but children were.

These findings are great evidence for two linguistic theories: first, that children are more readily able to learn language (and any skill, really) than adults (this has been shown time and again in studies, but there are some who still don’t buy it); and second, that the language we speak affects how we understand the world. In simplistic terms: if we don’t have a word for something, then it’s harder–or impossible–for us to comprehend it. It can get far more complex, though; anyone who’s studied semantics knows how difficult it can be to properly define a text’s connotation. Language affects how we think about the world in varied and subtle ways.

Writers know this. They have to. Writers use language not only to transcribe actions, but to express ideas. There are straightforward ways of doing this, but writing is seen as art only when it presents an idea more subtly. Literary critics and Old English Teachers thrive on layers of meaning. To imbue a text with the sort of connotation that has readers gasping at the brilliance–and yet is just plain enough that readers can “figure it out” on their own, thus feeling brilliant themselves–a writer must be attuned to the quiet workings of language, beneath the uncomplicated surface. And the writer must then be able to manipulate those workings to her own ends.

Sometimes this is subconscious, brought about by innate ability. But I would argue that the larger portion of it is simply crafting. Working to bring out the intended ideas through prose that is tight, clear, and packed with meaning.

That’s the kind of writer I want to be, should I ever actually go back to writing.

While discussing the articles with Jes, we came around to the subject of English as a Second Language, and she mentioned that there is actually an ESL program right down the street from me. (How convenient!) So I’m thinking about calling them up and offering to teach…I do have a “Certificate in Applied Linguistics for Teaching English as a Second Language”, after all, and it’s just going to waste :> Jes usually teaches there, but she had to take this semester off due to a conflict with her course schedule. She plans to go back next semester, though, so we could share tips and stories with each other :) I mentioned the program to Brooke, and she’s interested too, although it might not be possible with her work schedule. It would be a lot of fun with more friends there, though :)