As I have mentioned before, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that specific languages affect how speakers view the world. Recently, I came across this article about a Japanese company that is making its employees (in Japan) speak English:
Japan continues to work inside a linguistic bubble – not least because many firms in Japan are oriented towards the domestic market and pay little heed to global trends. But this approach is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Switching to English makes Japanese firms more competitive, while opening employees’ eyes to the outside world.
There is another benefit to using English in business: The language has few power markers. Its use can therefore help to break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society and reflected in Japanese conversation, which could boost efficiency.
What were the effects of this change?
Of course, the Englishisation of companies is not easy. The internal shake-up is profound. Staff who speak English well suddenly acquire a higher status: those who do not fear for their careers.
Today, more than 90 per cent of our employees have achieved the required level of English. This has helped to make our operations more efficient than ever. An employee anywhere in the world can pick up a phone and get an immediate answer, instead of working through a translator.
The impact can also be felt on an individual level. One manager, who initially feared that he would have to leave the company, changed his tune after attending an intensive English-language school in the Philippines, where he met students from South Korea and China who were committed to mastering the language. His English improved quickly, and so did his standing in the company. More importantly, he gained a much-needed global perspective.
When I teach about language development, I have always told my students that the sounds of language are arbitrary. The fact that the same animal can be “dog” in English and “inu” in Japanese, shows that the sound systems of different languages are just historic accidents.
Well, maybe not. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there may be certain fundamental similarities between certain words across languages:
It is widely assumed that one of the fundamental properties of spoken language is the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning. Some exceptions in the form of nonarbitrary associations have been documented in linguistics, cognitive science, and anthropology, but these studies only involved small subsets of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today. By analyzing word lists covering nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages, we demonstrate that a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). Prominently among these relations, we find property words (“small” and i, “full” and p or b) and body part terms (“tongue” and l, “nose” and n). The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed. Our results therefore have important implications for the language sciences, given that nonarbitrary associations have been proposed to play a critical role in the emergence of cross-modal mappings, the acquisition of language, and the evolution of our species’ unique communication system.
One possible explanation for these similarities is that they are survivals from prot0-world, the hypothetical first human language. But note that the authors argue against this:
The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed
In developmental psychology, “sensitive period” refers to an age range where the the brain is especially sensitive to specific environmental stimuli. The most famous example of this is the sensitive period for language development during early childhood.
Now, a paper in Psychological Science reports on evidence for a sensitive period during adolescence and early adulthood:
In the current study, we investigated windows for enhanced learning of cognitive skills during adolescence. Six hundred thirty-three participants (11–33 years old) were divided into four age groups, and each participant was randomly allocated to one of three training groups. Each training group completed up to 20 days of online training in numerosity discrimination (i.e., discriminating small from large numbers of objects), relational reasoning (i.e., detecting abstract relationships between groups of items), or face perception (i.e., identifying differences in faces). Training yielded some improvement in performance on the numerosity-discrimination task, but only in older adolescents or adults. In contrast, training in relational reasoning improved performance on that task in all age groups, but training benefits were greater for people in late adolescence and adulthood than for people earlier in adolescence. Training did not increase performance on the face-perception task for any age group. Our findings suggest that for certain cognitive skills, training during late adolescence and adulthood yields greater improvement than training earlier in adolescence, which highlights the relevance of this late developmental stage for education.
This week I will have to introduce my students to language development. This usually involves describing Chomsky’s theory, the standard in all textbooks. However, a serous challenge to Chomsky’s views has begun to emerge. You can read about it here in this Scientific American piece:
At the time the Chomskyan paradigm was proposed, it was a radical break from the more informal approaches prevalent at the time, and it drew attention to all the cognitive complexities involved in becoming competent at speaking and understanding language. But at the same time that theories such as Chomsky’s allowed us to see new things, they also blinded us to other aspects of language. In linguistics and allied fields, many researchers are becoming ever more dissatisfied with a totally formal language approach such as universal grammar—not to mention the empirical inadequacies of the theory.
I wonder if there will be any renewed interest in Skinner’s ideas on this topic?
I was searching for some information for a lecture on language development and stumbled upon this fascinating webpage. A few of the things I learned:
The language with the fewest sounds (phonemes): Rotokas (11 phonemes)
The language with the most sounds (phonemes): !Xóõ (112 phonemes). Approx. 4200 speak !Xóõ, the vast majority of whom live in the African country of Botswana.
Here is a video about saving Rotokas:
You can hear !Xóõ spoken here:
The website does make one mistake it claims:
Language with the fewest words: Taki Taki (also called Sranan), 340 words. Taki Taki is an English-based Creole spoken by 120,000 in the South American country of Suriname.
Actually, Toki Pona has only 120 words.
A fascinating Lexicon Valley podcast where linguist John McWhorter interviews Ann Patty about her efforts to learn Latin. Patty documents her learning project in her book Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.
As I have said many times, learning a language is an ideal exercise for your brain. Don’t waste you time with expensive and, probably, ineffective brain training software. Learn a language instead.
It has been suggested to me that my recent posts on Bayesian Analysis might be of limited interest (I am shocked). So today I give you a language learning tip; listen to The Actual Fluency Podcast, hosted by Kris Broholm the show is entertaining, helpful, and inspirational. If you are trying to learn a language, I recommend this podcast without reservation.