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FireMadeFlesh's avatar

How much does a person's language influence their other brain functions?

Asked by FireMadeFlesh (14589 points ) April 14th, 2010

In the book Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, he states that at birth, a human brain starts to model itself into an ‘English Brain’, or a ‘Chinese Brain’ and so on for each language. Does a person’s native language influence brain functions other than just language?

For example many of my Asian background friends, who still speak English first language, are able to wrote learn much more readily than I am, but are not as good with spatial reasoning. Is this a genetic difference, a language-related learned difference, or just statistical variations within my group of friends?

Does the structure of language, for example Greek’s multiple words for then English word ‘love’, affect the way a Greek person would think to themselves about the concept of love when compared to a native English speaker? Would they have a different formulation of the concept, or just a different way of describing essentially similar thoughts?

Apologies for rambling. For a little more background, as if it is needed, this question is in reaction to this article.

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25 Answers

Zyx's avatar

I think the answer you’re essentially looking for is no. Memory is different for every person and this ball of information is tailored to your needs and not your wants, meaning the language in this ball of memory does only what it needs to. Sure, people can get stuck in a certain mindset. But in the end all that physically influences the brain is genetics, mood and health.

morphail's avatar

As far as I know there’s very little evidence that language influences thought so directly and specifically.

You mention the Greek words for “love”... but English has lots of words for “love” as well: affection, desire, lust, devotion, infatuation.

janbb's avatar

It’s an interesting question; it’s hard to imagine that the constructs of one’s first language don’t shape, in some ways, one’s mental functioning but I don’t have an academic understanding of the subject. My grandson is living his first year of life in France and thus is surrounded by French even though he is American and will be living here next year. I will be curious to see how his language develops. I have read that early exposure to multiple languages shapes the brain in certain ways and makes language acquisition easier throughout life.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

I think there are probably language thresholds that must be crossed in order to have fluency; otherwise the act of acquisition of a second language is conscious act of translation. In order to be fluent, the language must be fluid. In the article you attached, it appears the girl’s exposure to German was in place, as she was attending a school where German was taught. Up until the coma, she was not able to cross that threshold of fluency. It’s interesting that the German replaced the Croatian.

It makes me wonder if the ability for fluency in multiple languages is somehow wired into us. Does everyone have it? How does language processing work?

When I was a small child (up to age 5) I spent a lot of time with both sets of grandparents. In my mother’s family home, Ukranian was spoken more than English. In my father’s family home, German was spoken more than English. I could speak neither Ukranian nor German, but understood everything that was said to me. We moved to the other side of the country, and I only saw family once a year, for a week. When I was 11, spent the whole summer with both sets of grandparents again, and after a week or two, comprehension of both languages returned, even though I couldn’t speak either.

kittybee's avatar

I think it does to a certain extent. The concept of a word comes before naming the concept – and then it becomes a word. It seems that not only do we not have words for certain things (like these grecian words for love), but we don’t have a good grasp on the concept. So certain concepts are important in certain lanuages, and not in others – but maybe the greatest thing that causes this is culture. It does seem however, that a concept is more easily formed when you have a word for it.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Zyx “But in the end all that physically influences the brain is genetics, mood and health.”
I disagree. It has been shown that students studying for exams demonstrate a marked increase in the amount of grey matter. The brain is plastic, and is modified by everything a person encounters during their lives.

@morphail The example is imperfect, but surely you can see the intent behind it?

@janbb Very interesting, thank you. Does your grandson hear English at home?

@PandoraBoxx I find it interesting that the region of language processing (Broca’s area) is completely different for the region for sound processing. Like your example, my girlfriend can understand her parents’ dialect of Chinese but can only speak a few words. It is quite amusing to hear them speak to here in Chinese and then hear her answer in English all the time.

@FionaMarieQueen Thank you for your thoughts. I would like to know to what degree this effect occurs, and how fundamental the differences are.

@the100thmonkey Great link, thanks! I especially like the paragraph on George Orwell’s Newspeak, where the people cannot grasp the concept of revolution because they have no word for it.

janbb's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh His parents do speak English to him at home and also a little French is spoken in the home. He is now at a creche 4 days a week where only French is spoken. Two of his grandparents back here in the States speak Polish a lot at home so he will be exposed to that next year.

msbauer's avatar

oh man @the100thmonkey beat me to it. sapir-whorf indeed! but yes, there’s still controversy and not a lot of support for it, as far as i know.

just some quick examples i’ve heard:
1) asian cultures have a different math concept than english-speakers because they say the number “16” as “10 and 6”...apparently this provides an eensey-weensey benefit in early development/math-learning for asian children when learning the 10s place/larger numbers
2) the Inuit only have numbers for 1, 2 and more than 2 (if i remember this correctly)...that’s GOTTA influence how you see the world

more than just what language you speak, but also just the culture you grow up in influences how you perceive the world..of you’re gonna say “duh, i knew that!” but i was setting myself up for this study on music and how westerners have a hard time following/reproducing eastern beats…aka “white man can’t dance” syndrome

Trillian's avatar

This is a great question. I’ve often pondered this myself. I once read that the thought process is incomplete without articulation and it makes perfect sense to me. My thoughts were of early man when language was first evolving, but I think that it can be applied anywhere. If one lacks the vocabulary to express an abstract concept, how can one fully formulate the concept? One could have an inkling of it but without the ability to articulate it, it cannot be fully developed.
Great link too.
And of course, the language spoken would influence the culture of a society, and vice versa. How not?
I think that a non inflected language like English has the ability to evolve, and that is what makes it a great language. I don’t have the statistics, but I have read that some languages are stagnant in that they do not add words for new concepts. This in turn causes a breakdown in innovative thought.
I think.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@msbauer: My wife is a native speaker of Japanese. If you ask her what colour the “walk” sign on a traffic light is, she gives two different answers depending on which language she is speaking – it’s green in English, but it’s blue in Japanese, despite there being a word for “green” in Japanese.

There are studies – like this one – which indicate a statistically significant effect of differing colour terms between language systems. I also remember a study (although the name of the author escapes me) which showed that brightness was more important for Japanese speakers than hue when categorising intermediate colours, whereas for NSs of English, hue takes precedence.

There is also the very interesting case of the Pirahã – their language lacks number terms over 2, and it is claimed that recursion is impossible within it. If this is true, it would mean the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis actually challenges the theoretical basis of Chomskian Universal Grammar.

Exciting times for Applied Linguists!

Ltryptophan's avatar

I think english seems more precise than spanish…just my opinion…

I imagine there are some languages that are more precise than english.

JLeslie's avatar

@Ltryptophan I disagree. Why do you feel that way? In my mind English many times uses one word to mean many things and refer to many different things. Like we use love for I love my husband, I love my baby, I love this ice cream, I love the ocean. In Spanish there are various words like amor, Quere, Encantar, to me more specific to the situation. Also, when conjugating a verb the verb is specific to the know, in English the verb could easily go with many differnt nouns. If I say I want, we want, he wants she wants…but in Spanish quiero is for sure I am talking about myself, quieren is talking about others, etc. Not to mention we have many many words in English, especially in spoken English that have two or three meaning, some very different meanings. Fine can be a fee or that something is ok. pear, pair, and pare; two, too, and to; your and you’re, their, there, and they’re.

@all I don’t know if speaking a specific language change the brain, but I do think knowing more than one language does. I once read, not sure how accurate it is, that each language we speak is actual in a different part of the brain. I guess there must be som sort of language center, but it is not all piled into one specific location, it’s not just all vocabulary. The structure and logic of each language, well, I guess if you know more than one then you have more than one idea of logical patterns of speech. Maybe that is what it is? And each language tends to have its own rythm, even its own level of excitement, courtesy, and formality. It is more than just words, it conveys atitude and more.

morphail's avatar

There’s very little evidence for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

@msbauer
“2) the Inuit only have numbers for 1, 2 and more than 2 (if i remember this correctly)...that’s GOTTA influence how you see the world”
This isn’t true about Inuit, but pretend that it is. Which came first, the thoughts or the language?

Say language X has a word for something, and language Y doesn’t. This might say something interesting about the culture of language X speakers, but it says nothing interesting about language imo. It’s normal for languages to encode reality in different ways, and of course you’re going to have words for things that are important to you. For instance Ancient Greek has the word “erōs” which tanslates as “object of love or desire; passionate joy”. It’s not translated into English by one word; we need a phrase to translate it. Does that mean that English speakers have trouble understanding the concept of “erōs”? Of course not, because we don’t need to encode concepts in single words in order to understand them. We can use a number of words in combination to express things. There is nothing hard to understand about the phrase “passionate joy” that would be easier to understand if it was a single word.

I don’t have a word for “the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow” but I can express this concept clearly with no problem. Would having a single word for this concept make it easier to understand?

French has two words that both translated as “to know”: “savoir” is knowledge that results from understanding, and “connaître” is knowledge that results from recognition. Do English speakers have trouble understanding “knowledge that results from understanding” because they don’t have a single word for it?

@FireMadeFlesh In 1984, Orwell hypothesized that if people don’t have the word for revolution, they can’t revolt. This won’t work – as I’ve tried to show, we can think of something without having a single word for it.

Ltryptophan's avatar

@Jleslie If you really want me to come up with some for instances I will. That said…I don’t want to. Generally I think that spanish is very beautiful and can be as succinct as english. In common language I have noticed that english seems to come to crisp techical meanings that I think are not common in Spanish. This might have something to do with technology and science and the importance english speaking countries (think america) have been in advancing those fields. Not that spanish speaking countries have not, but it just seems like jargon and technical things seem to me to be better said in english. I am certainly not the last word, but I think others might relate to me. Obviously if you took a pole on it in Mexico city, and one in Kansas, you are going to get the opposite result.

But from how I hear spanish spoken it seems to be english as a more exact language. Just my take. I don’t think someone who says I am wrong is wrong.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@morphail I don’t think it is so much a matter of ease of articulation, as it is the ability to define a concept. Of course a perfect vocabulary in any language will allow a person to express the vast majority of ideas that they wish to express. Since I am talking about the effect of native language on development though, we cannot assume a child has a good vocabulary or ability to articulate.

In our English speaking culture, the first words we try to teach babies is “mum” and “dad”. In another language, let us suppose babies are first taught “mother” and “father”. Since these are less affectionate terms, is it likely that children raised with this other language would not develop the same familial affection, but more of a cool respect for their parents? Learning a new phrase or a new way to express ideas as an adult often has little effect on how we consider things, but the first formulation learned as a child may well influence the conception of “who mother is” independently of adult modes of expression learned later on.

PacificToast's avatar

I don’t think it’s so much the language as the culture they were raised in that affects their learning and behavior.

morphail's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh “Since I am talking about the effect of native language on development though, we cannot assume a child has a good vocabulary or ability to articulate.”

I don’t understand you.

“In our English speaking culture, the first words we try to teach babies is “mum” and “dad”. In another language, let us suppose babies are first taught “mother” and “father”. Since these are less affectionate terms, is it likely that children raised with this other language would not develop the same familial affection, but more of a cool respect for their parents?”

I think it’s more likely that whatever words were taught to children would become affectionate terms, because they are used by children. There simply just isn’t any evidence that words influence thought to the degree you’re talking about.

By the way, fyi: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/linguistics/documents/where_do_mama2.pdf

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@morphail Thanks. My sentence was sloppy – what I intended to say is that children do not have advanced linguistic skills, and so are less able to articulate their ideas. Children from different places may learn how to express different ideas at different stages, and the concepts they learn first may carry more weight for them.

morphail's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh It’s possible, but how would you measure it objectively? And the same could be true for different children within the same language.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@morphail Psychologists have a series of flashcards with vague shapes on them, and ask subjects what the shapes remind them of. Maybe a similar system could be developed where we ask children how they would describe a term. For example, would you classify the word “false” as hard or soft? Aggressive or passive? Is it more closely aligned with “counterfeit” or “fake”? Did you first think of the meaning “artificial” or “untruth”?

morphail's avatar

How would you know that the results are due to language differences, as opposed to cultural differences? Also you would have to ask the same questions to children speaking different languages, so you’d have the problem of translation issues.

As far as I know the only sort of studies that have been done along those lines are the ones on colour terms mentioned earlier. This sort of thing is very hard to measure, which is perhaps one reason why there’s so little evidence.

JLeslie's avatar

@Ltryptophan I see. That is something I would be unaware of, because my Spanish vocabulary is nearly zero for the sciences and more technical subject matter. Thanks for explaining.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@morphail I’m not sure it matters, since culture and language are closely related in the first place.

morphail's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh It matters a great deal. Language and culture might be related, but they are not the same thing. I’m sure you understand that in an experiment, it’s important to isolate the factor you want to measure. In order to measure the affect of language on brain functions, you need to know that you are measuring language, and not some other factor.

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