Monday, November 25, 2013

How we think: The time perspective

The future: The way ahead of us or the way up?

Language affects (but does not determine) the way we think about the world around us. We have seen this in my last blog, where I introduced an example from the interesting studies by Lera Boroditsky in this field. Other studies corroborate this view. However, the influence is not universal. So, it seems that the language we speak has no effect on the way we see colours. Does it also affect the way we see time? An investigation by Boroditsky makes clear that it is likely the case. At least, that is the result of a study with English and Mandarin speaking test persons. English has other spatial terms for referring to past and future than Mandarin Chinese. English uses horizontal terms like ahead and behind while Mandarin uses vertical terms like up and down. According to this study by Boroditsky (and now I quote from her summary) “Mandarin speakers tended to think about time vertically even when they were thinking for English (Mandarin speakers were faster to confirm that March comes earlier than April if they had just seen a vertical array of objects than if they had just seen a horizontal array, and the reverse was true for English speakers).” However, the effect of language on thought is not determinate and can alter under the influence of external factors like having learned another language. So it is no surprise that another investigation by Boroditsky showed “that the extent to which Mandarin–English bilinguals think about time vertically is related to how old they were when they first began to learn English.” The effect works also in the other direction, for “[i]n another experiment”, so Boroditsky, “native English speakers were taught to talk about time using vertical spatial terms in a way similar to Mandarin. On a subsequent test, this group of English speakers showed the same bias to think about time vertically as was observed with Mandarin speakers.”
But why then the difference between the case of time and the case of colour, since for colours language does not affect the way we see them? Boroditsky suggests  – and I think it’s plausible, although much research has yet to be done in this field – that the difference between time and colour is that colour experiences happen already before a newborn has learned a language while abstract concepts like “time” develop only after the language acquisition. All this brings her to the idea that once there “one’s native language plays an important role in shaping habitual thought (e.g., how one tends to think about time)”. Which should explain that colour perception is more or less universal while abstract ideas like time are is more or less language-bound, at least initially.
So far, so good, and, as said, all this is very plausible in my opinion, and it agrees with my view. But it made me think a bit about the idea of time. I should have consulted Henri Bergson and other philosophers (and psychologists) for saying something reasonable about this (and in order to avoid telling something as if it were new, while others may have said it many times before). However, we can see time quite momentaneous, as is actually done by Boroditsky in her studies: we stand here now on the road from the past to the future (or maybe a Mandarin speaker would say on the mountain between the valley and the top) with much time behind us (down to us) and much time ahead of us (up). And so life goes in a certain and significant sense, at least for an individual. But in another sense time is recurrent. The seasons and how we live through them are a case in point (and now the question occurs to me what the difference is between my experiencing the seasons, living in Northwestern Europe in a region with a clear seasonal cycle, and the experiencing by a person living in a region of the world like the tropics where this cycle is very different). Another instance of the recurrence of time is the way we produce our society and so our history as conceived by the sociologist Anthony Giddens: By what we do, so by our actions, we produce our social systems and social structure, which we later encounter as the conditions that make new actions possible and that give them an embedment. These visions of time make that it is much wider than merely a linguistic phenomenon (and I think that no one interested in the language-thought relation will deny this). But besides that, this recurrent cycle, or rather spiral, is also the way a language is produced and reproduced. Does this mean that the influence of time on the way a language produces its time categories is at least as big as the influence of language on our view of time? In general: does this mean that the influence of thinking on language may be at least as big as the influence of language on thinking?

Source: Lera Boroditsky, “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English
Speakers’ Conceptions of Time”, on

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