The Perils of Linguistic Relativity

BY Ben Chai

The idea of linguistic relativity fascinates me. Hollywood seemed to like it too, given the somewhat hyperbolic take on the hypothesis in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). As a natively bilingual Mandarin and English speaker who grew up in Texas, I’m curious about the idea that my language faculties may influence my own cognition. Does the language I think in have an influence on my behavior?

I wish there was truly an empirical way to evaluate this, but every experiment to prove it one way or the other has attracted some degree of criticism. Sure, you could argue that language is a part of culture and thus the conundrum has more to
do with the latter rather than the former – but where’s the fun in that? 

In Mandarin, there is no tense. Time is defined by expositing when the specific action is taken (i.e., “Today, I go store,” “Yesterday, I go store,” “Tomorrow, I go store”). There are no articles. There aren’t even declensions or conjugations to strike terror into the hearts of eager learners. These attributes of the language contribute to the stereotypical portrayal of Chinese people – but how does it impact perception? 

Growing up, my parents always griped about never knowing what I was doing and when I was doing it. Of course, this could just be a symptom of teenage communication syndrome – but what if it was a matter of semantics? In English, saying, “I went to my friend’s house,” is enough information to create understanding because it is embedded in circumstance – the listener knows when in the past this event happened because of prior context. In Mandarin, you must be a little more specific and provide the context for “when” – “Last night, I go to friend’s house.” Without providing context, the statement would be as effective as the English phrase, “In the past, I went to my friend’s house.” Which makes sense – but someone unfamiliar with this attribute could take it as apathetic, or sarcastic – or even devious. Those are all common descriptors of a stereotypical teenager, and it definitely amplifies the cultural tension – but could the line between cause and effect be blurry in an example like this?

I also think about table manners, and how American etiquette strongly differs from what I grew up with. Lexically, an interesting case study would be the syntactic placement of the word “please.” Think about it. What’s the difference between saying, “Could you pass me the broccoli, please?” vs. “Could you please pass me the broccoli?” vs. “Please pass me the broccoli?” And how does the tone change if you omit the “please” altogether? 

To me, “Please pass me the broccoli” feels more direct and, depending on how it is delivered, could be interpreted as short or forward. So, for someone who is unaware of that nuance, it could dramatically change the perception of a request for broccoli. Which is very interesting considering that in Chinese, the word “please” only comes at the beginning of a sentence, and furthermore, is often way too polite to use in everyday situations (to the point where it would be understood as sarcasm). The most normal, polite way of asking for broccoli in Chinese, out of all of the examples listed, would be, “Pass me the broccoli.” To an English speaker, that could feel rude. But for the Chinese speaker whose second language is English, that wouldn’t even be a thought that crosses his or her mind. How the word “please” affects relationships between Chinese people should be a dissertation in itself!

Could something like this be the source of cultural misunderstanding? I’ve heard from Chinese relatives that to them, Americans seem overly polite or “fake” – could this not reflect actual mannerisms but rather something built into the mechanics of their languages themselves?

“To an English speaker, that could feel rude. But for the Chinese speaker whose second language is English, that wouldn’t even be a thought that crosses his or her mind.”

Between those two examples, I wonder – did I assume that my parents’ command of English would be strong enough to understand tense or formality? Or even if they did, is their linguistic faculty wired to need a threshold of specificity before they felt like their son had good time-management skills or good manners? These days, I wonder if there were arguments that happened simply because of the linguistic traits of my Texan English vs. their native Chinese, rather than because of friction that emerged from cultural incongruity.

This thought of course leads to the rabbit hole of other languages and our perception of the culture that embodies them. Do languages with gender have any effect on the establishment of gender roles in society, or vice-versa? Does the fact that the word for “we” in Mandarin literally translating to “I” followed by the plural modifier shape the preference for collective thought and action in Chinese society? Could the lack of the copula in Russian be what makes Russians seem so straightforward to Americans?

As noted before, this is all mostly conjecture – but it might be worthwhile for all of us in this globalizing world to consider that language barriers may go far beyond misunderstanding and into the semantics of the languages themselves.  

Ben Chai has been with MasterWord since 2013 and is Texas-born and raised. His areas of expertise include media localization for audio and video, data synthesis, and machine translation. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Linguistics, Russian, and Middle Eastern Studies and currently leads the technology team for the company’s translation and localization department.

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