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Language: Our Truth, Our Experience

Author: Anil Thomas


“Nim kle gadeetvoo tta corota-jra reyy... fuhoo kle. Dambadamba jivla baahaa-na...” roared the Kalakeya king when he challenged the Queen and her two sons for war against the Kingdom of Maheshmati. This scene of the blockbuster hit movie Baahubali, is noteworthy. Nobody, neither the Queen nor her sons could comprehend what the Kalakeya king said, but they still stood silently knowing that the words being uttered in their presence are not exactly welcoming. It was only when a prisoner of war standing in their midst translated the King’s threatening words that they reacted with bulging eyes and gasps of horror, ready to pounce at the ill-bred king.

Language creates our experiences. It is only when the Queen and her sons understood what the king said that they reacted furiously, thus giving birth to their unpleasant experience. Before that, the incomprehensible words of the King had no clear impact on them, thus creating no or an uncertain experience which was not of much importance. Imagine, what would have happened if the translator would have delivered an entirely different translation to the Queen, saying that the Kalakeya king had come to submit before the fight even started because he heard of the might of the Royal family. The same words of the king would have received a very different reaction from the Queen and her sons, thus creating a proud and pleasant experience for them. Language, then, holds the power to elicit different emotions from us humans, thus creating different experiences. A teacher’s sharp words of criticism can demotivate a student completely, a mother’s simple ‘Proud of you’ can grant immense level of confidence in a child, just listening to a standup comedian can make one’s miserable day turn into the best day ever, while a coach’s monologue can make a team, who has given up hope, win. Language has that impact, it elicits emotions, and creates different experiences. There are a total of 7,000 languages spoken around the world, 7000 extremely different experiences. They have different sounds, different pronunciations, different vocabulary, different grammar and different structures. Therefore it is justified to ask whether people who speak different languages also differ in the ways they think? And the answer to this is yes. Language does shape the way we think. In fact, people can, more or less, only perceive aspects of the world for which their language has words. But this in no way suggests that languages limit our ability to perceive the world, rather, they focus our attention and thoughts on specific and different aspects of the world. Speakers of different languages develop different cognitive skills and predispositions as shaped and structured by the patterns of their languages. Human mind, then, has invented not one but 7,000 different cognitive universes- each, more diverse than the previous one. While delivering a Ted Talk, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shares various examples supporting the above mentioned claim. She talks about her own study of an Australian primeval community whose members didn’t use the words ‘left’ or ‘right’ while referring to directions. Instead, they used cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. However, English speaking communities, or even Hindi speaking communities for that matter, don’t really know the compass directions, let alone use them properly. Cognitively speaking, this aboriginal community would be way better oriented than the English speaking folk simply because their language taught them their directions well. Similarly, there are languages which don’t have words for numbers, and therefore speakers of these languages have great difficulty keeping track of exact amounts. Different languages also have their own ways to describe certain events, focusing on very different aspects of the same event. For example, an English speaking girl would probably say, “Hey mom, I broke my arm” and her mom would normally show some concern towards her daughter and take her to the hospital. If, on the other hand, a Hindi speaking girl would have said the same thing, just in her own language (“Mumma, maine apna haath todh diya”), her mother would give her a good scolding for acting like a lunatic, before taking her to the hospital. The latter would react that way because her interpretation would be completely different from the former’s. The Hindi speaking mom, in this case, assumed that her daughter deliberately broke her arm, which would not be the case with the English speaking mom, even though what both their daughters said were the exact same thing. This however isn’t what typically happens in Hindi speaking households. We (the Hindi speaking folk) focus on what happened, in other words: we focus on the event, unlike the English speaking folk who focus on who actually did it. The cognitive consequences of this are that the English speakers remember ‘who did it’, whereas the Hindi speakers remember ‘what actually happened’. So, two people watch the same event, witness the same crime, but end up remembering different things about that event. Language also affects the way we perceive different colours. The first one was conducted on English speakers and Russian speakers, and found that the former couldn’t detect a gradual colour change from light to dark blue, while the latter could detect it readily. This was because the Russian language, being more in-depth and accurate in relation to colours, has different words to specifically categorize different shades of blue as opposed to the English language. So thanks to the language, the speakers are able-enough to detect subtle colour changes in their environments as compared to speakers of a different language. It should not come as a surprise that those who speak more than one language also see the world differently. Numerous studies have shown that a new language can change how the human mind pulls information together, hence, enabling those who speak more than one language to have diverse perspectives on a particular issue. Such people can have a significant position in society because of their ability to be the negotiator between groups. Not just that, studies support multilinguals to have a better working memory than monolinguals (Białystok et al. 2008). Another set of studies mentioned before, is a growing body of research, actually documenting how experience with language downright restructures the human brain. Individuals who were deprived of access to language as children show patterns of neural connectivity that are altogether different from those who had early exposure with language and are cognitively different from peers who had early language access. Studies suggest that multilinguals differ from monolinguals in their cognitive organization and that affects their recall of personal experience, perception, memory, and self-perception. There is no doubt, then, that language does give birth to our cognitive universe, and that Charlemagne was right when he said, “To have a second language is to have a second soul”. Language also has a very intriguing relationship with the senses. I remember the first time I heard this song when the Dairy Milk Silk advertisement came on, “Kiss Me, Close Your Eyes Miss Me, Close Your Eyes I Can Read Your Lips On Your Fingertips I Can Feel Your Smile Come On My Lips And Happiness In Your Eyes”

Before I knew it, I was smiling. The more I listened to it, the quicker I could relate it to happiness and of course, chocolates! And now, the minute I listen to this song, I start craving the product that it is selling. It works exactly the same way when someone in front of me starts talking about my favourite cuisines, my mouth starts watering and my stomach starts craving. Mere words having the ability to physiologically affect me, scary isn’t it? Another example that highlights this relationship between language and the senses, is the act of sexting, in which two individuals willingly exchange sexually oriented messages online. Research has found that sexting is positively correlated with sexual satisfaction (Harris, Frisby, & Beck, in progress) and sexual pleasure (Klettke, Hallford, & Miller, 2014). This means that language is capable enough to satisfy people’s sexual needs! The VAKOG model used in Neuro Linguistic Psychology is a model which talks about language and its association with the five senses. According to NLP, humans use the five sensory channels with different emphasis and input. These five senses are used in ‘sensory words’ which are verbs, nouns, adverbs that refer to a certain representational system. So basically a person's favorite expressions related to seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting indicate his representational system of preference. The five sensory channels are as follows: 1. Visual – This sense is related to the vision, eye. The visual expressions we generally use are: see, look, picture, imagine, focus, notice, watch, visible, appear to be, look ahead, look away, etc. 2. Auditory – This sense is related to listening, ear. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: quiet, calm, loud, discuss, rumour, speechless, silent, unheard of, shout, call out to, etc. 3. Kinesthetic – This sense is related to touch or feel, skin. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: feel uncomfortable, comfortable, heart skips a beat, hold on, be on cloud nine, pull some strings, slip my mind, cold feet, soft, rough, cold, etc. 4. Olfactory – This sense is related to smell, nose. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: scent of chase, running nose, smell, scent, burned, rosy, smoky, mossy, earthy, woody, odourless, look beyond one’s own nose, etc. 5. Gustatory – This sense is related to taste, tongue. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: juicy, suck, sip, slobber, lick, taste, burnt, nutty, delicious, sour, crispy, savoury, etc. So, according to this model, an individual with a visual representation system would generally say things like, “Keep your eyes on the prize”, while another individual with an auditory representation system would say, “Doesn’t the prize money sound great?!”. Similarly a person with a kinesthetic representation system would say things like, “I have a great feeling about the prize”, whereas the one with a gustatory representation system would say, “It’s indeed a mouth-watering deal!” Language is obviously extremely influential. That is why we’re taught from a very small age to talk ‘properly’, not let emotions get the best of you, to use the ‘appropriate’ words according to every context, to be subtle and not direct, to be neutral while talking. But what is neutral? Is there such a thing called ‘neutral language'? Every language carries with it a host of assumptions about the world, about others, and ourselves. Even a simple ‘I’m fine thank you’ to someone who just asked you how’re you doing, suggests that you don’t consider that person important enough to tell them how you’re really doing, in other words: you guys are not close. People who do use what they perceive to be ‘neutral language’ are in some ways similar to those who call themselves ‘apolitical’. Apolitical, may seem to be a neutral term on the surface, but in reality it’s a stand of its own. Similarly, trying to talk carefully without taking a stand, is a stand of its own, not neutral. Imagine you are in Delhi, standing in front of a street vendor, waiting for your favourite street food called ‘golgappa’, and suddenly you are joined by another customer asking the same vendor for a plate of ‘panipuri’. What comes to your mind? If you are familiar with the age-old debate between Delhiites and Mumbaikars on whether it’s called a ‘golgappa’ or a ‘panipuri’, you will automatically assume that the second customer is from Mumbai. Mere words were enough to make that assumption, weren’t they? Take another example, gender in language. Different languages have different ways of assigning genders to nouns. The word "bridge" happens to be grammatically feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. So German speakers are more likely to describe bridges as "beautiful," "elegant", which are stereotypically feminine words, whereas Spanish speakers will be more likely to describe it as "strong" or "long", which are stereotypically masculine words. This may not look like much, but actually highlights the li