Friday, September 3, 2010

Does Your Language Determine Your Sense of Orientation?

Last weekend's New York Times magazine included an interesting article positing that our "mother tongue" may well shape our experience of the world -- not in terms of what we cannot perceive, but in terms of what we must perceive. In "You Are What You Speak: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?", Guy Deutscher uses the example of "geographic" languages, such as the Australian aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr, and their influence on speaker's sense of orientation. Geographic languages described any location in terms of cardinal directions (e.g., "The ant is north of your foot."), while "egocentric" languages, such as most Western languages, generally describe location based on the speaker's or subject's position (e.g., "The ant is in front of your foot.")

Research performed with native speakers of such geographic languages shows them to have a superior sense of direction compared with the average speaker of an egocentric language. What this does not account for, however, is where native speakers of the respective types of languages grew up.

Take my husband, an English native speaker from a small town in Iowa. Even after living in New York City for 20 years, he generally gives directions in terms of cardinal directions (e.g., walk north on 7th Avenue, then turn East at 23rd Street) and can tell you which way a particular direction is, even in the midst of the city. Confronted with such directions, my New York City-born English speaking children say, "I have no idea what you're talking about. Am I supposed to turn left or right?" It seems to me that my husband's rural childhood is responsible for his sense of directions, not his native language.

Since known geographic languages are all indigenous, it stands to reason that native speakers of such languages would have grown up in rural settings. Many native speakers of Western languages, however, grew up in urban areas. So how much of someone's sense of orientation is related to the language they grew up speaking and how much is a result of the environment in which they grew up?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment. I will review comments weekly, so please be patient if you are expecting a reply. - Barbara