Grammar, vocabulary and the thought process

Posted on January 29, 2009. Filed under: language |

When people discuss  cross cultural communication (and miscommunication) they are usually looking at pragmatics, or the way people say what they do, depending on the context. Although pragmatics carries the bulk of the cultural influence in communication, the grammar of a language can also influence  perceptions of others and events. It can create unspoken rules about the way things should be.

American linguist Benjamin Whorf  (1897-1941) was the first to postulate that what one thinks is determined by his language.  Although many linguists, most notably Stephen Pinker of Harvard University,  have argued against this, I think the main problem is that Whorf says thinking is determined by language, not influenced by language.

During an ESL class recently, I was teaching the unreal conditional (if I were in charge of education in this country, I would make the school day longer). A Thai student replied that I’m not in charge of education for the country. That’s right, I said. Thats why its an unreal conditional. The student was genuinely confused. Why would I even think of the result of something that doesn’t  exist? It made no sense. Thai language, as it turns out, does not have this grammatical form.

Certainly this student was able to understand this grammatical structure once it  had been taught to him. However, it was not part of the way he viewed or thought about the world. When you are learning another language, you are, in fact, learning about the way people think and view the world. 

Another example is the widespread use of diminutives in Spanish and Italian (calling my daughter Carla “Carlita” for example). They are used frequently to show affection and intimacy. There is no English equivalent that carries the same feeling, yet English speakers are capable of learning to use them, once they have been introduced.

Vocabulary, idioms and slang also can carry meaning that only the native speaker can understand on a gut level. I once had a Japanese student ask me, “Sensei, what is “pump up the jam” (the title of a 1989 song by Technotronic). After a short pause I said, “It means, increase the intensity.”  A weak translation for the feeling it inspires in native speakers.

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One Response to “Grammar, vocabulary and the thought process”

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This is very true!

Interesting fact on the Thai language. I once had a very good Thai friend, but we were only able to understand each other to a certain level and now I wonder if it was the limitations in our languages…?


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