Café Wrap: Language and Thinking

How does language affect our thinking?

This question, selected by a majority vote of participants at our most recent Socrates Café, highlights the importance of language in communication. Before we began to answer the initial question, we talked a lot about what we mean by language.

Do we mean English, Spanish, Korean, Dutch, Russian, American sign language, or some other form of the Latin based “lingua”? Or, do we mean the specific words that we use for expressing ourselves?

Thoughts we considered:

  • how the language that one speaks is based upon cultural or geographical experience
  • what effect politics have upon word use
  • how language changes over time
  • nuances of expression, interpretation and translation
  • how language, specifically one’s literacy, has a direct effect on whether they can be controlled by others

While these points are interconnected with each other, let’s take a quick look at how we unpeeled each point.

How is the language that one speaks based upon cultural or geographical experience?

One patron cited having read Trevor Noah’s bestseller Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. In it, the author noticed that apartheid in South Africa was more easily maintained as individual tribes continued to be separated by the many differing languages spoken. He believed it to be purposeful and for this reason he felt it important as a ticket to a better life to learn several languages.

And it stands to reason that it would be easier for any singularly focused group with a mind to subjugate another to achieve superiority if the smaller groups of potential adversaries are unable to easily communicate with one another. This underscores the importance of one’s ability to speak more than one language. But, speaking another language and understanding it well can be a challenge.

Geographically speaking, one participant used this example which she studied in college. Our world view, according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (1929: Edward Sapir and developed by Benjamin Whorf) advances that the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience. They gave, she said, an example that some native Alaskans have 14 different words for “snow” so they perceived snow in its many variations. Or the Hopi who use yokva, yooyangwl, or yoyañwe to say simply “rain,” whereas we would say “it is raining” thus introducing the subject-object relationship. Wow! So these two men suggested that the language we use forms how we think and view the world around us!

Our participant continued to explain the study’s relevance in her capacity as a therapist where cognitive restructuring is a helpful tool. Cognitive restructuring, according to Therapist Aid, is defined as “the therapeutic process of identifying and challenging negative and irrational thoughts.” This tool sometimes aids people who don’t have the language required to adequately identify or express their feelings.

What effect does politics have upon word use?

Here we considered how cultural sensitivities affect the words we choose to use in various situations. An example of is reflected in the pronouns used to assign gender. Do we use “he,” “she,” or “they” when referring to an individual? Those among us who have been teachers of English or concerned with using correct English grammar find the “they” in this case particularly jarring in the sense that the word “they,” until recently, has always referred to the plural rather than the singular “you.” We considered the possibility of coming up with a new word designation other than “they” such as “xe,” or resurrecting an older word that has fallen out of use like “thee” for gender assignment. In any case, we acknowledge that there are people who wish, for a variety of reasons, to be referred to neither as “he” nor “she.”

“So many things about changes in language can be either jarring or welcome,” one commented.

How does language change over time?

A book cited as an example of political change in word use is The Sound and the Fury, a novel by William Faulkner set in April 1928. Based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tale is told by a mentally challenged person. The patron pointed out that when the novel was published (1929) it was commonplace to use the term “idiot” for such a person. But, given our current understanding about abilities, not only is this word not used for this purpose, but to use it is considered offensive, hurtful and cruel. The ways that we talk make a difference.

In the aforementioned example, language changes when words take on new meanings either by group consensus or government decree. When earlier we talked about the word “you,” someone brought up its history. Early on, “you” was used to refer to the king, while “thee” referred to everyone or anyone else. Later, “you” took on use among the commoners either singular or plural.

What are the nuances of expression, interpretation and translation?

Regarding translation, a patron mentioned experiences at her work with translating and interpreting and they discovered that the translations were horribly incorrect. This brought up the idea of apps and online translations that may not be perfect due to certain idiosyncrasies of a particular language or dialect. These might include idioms.

While there is always plenty to unpack from a single question at the Socrates Café, doing so is a fun way in which to broaden our view. It gives introverts the opportunity to have their point of view recognized as equally valid, and extroverts segments of time in which to contemplate the voices and experiences that they hear from other people. Though minds may not be changed about our position on a particular topic, the important part is that we hear others’ perspectives. This helps everyone to think about how we come to believe what we do and to consider new options or to make more informed decisions.

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Café Wrap: Left Brain vs. Right Brain

Our first Socrates Café meet up of the season is on the books! <—  See what we did there?

The Big Q: Which serves you better: being right-brained (visual/intuitive) or left-brained (analytical/methodical)?

True to form, after our group decided on this question of the day, one participant sought to clarify: is the “you” the personal you, or the collective one? Well, it could be either so we allowed answers to either version.

One of the first considerations came from one who had spent his career as a salesman being methodical and linear in his approach. Later he realized that to better connect with his potential customers required certain creativity. This idea led another participant to cite Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci is an example of one person who gained notoriety in his time as a genius in the fields of art, architecture, anatomy and science, presumably utilizing both the right and left sides of his brain remarkably well.

Want to know how Da Vinci did it, and how you can too?

If so, there are two books in our collection that cover harnessing the power of both sides of your brain that you’ll find interesting. The first, by Michael J. Gelb, entitled How to think like Leonardo Da Vinci : Seven Steps to Genius Everyday, offers the reader thinking exercises. The flyleaf summarizes this book this way.  

“Drawing on Da Vinci’s notebooks, inventions, and legendary works of art, acclaimed author Michael J. Gelb, introduces seven Da Vincian principles, the essential elements of genius, from curiosita, the insatiably curious approach to life, to connessione, the appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things. With Da Vinci as their inspiration, readers will discover an exhilarating new way of thinking.”

Another book suggested by a participant is [The New] Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Our copy of this book, originally published in 1979, is a 20th anniversary re-issue having sold 2.5 million copies of the former. With 50 percent more material than the original issue, it is not only a book about drawing but it is also a book about freeing your mind to draw.

Care to narrow your reading solely to the left and right brain thing? Check out Chapter 3; Your Brain: The Right and Left of It.

Conversation about this book led us to consider a well-known perception exercise where the subject uses a picture that is oriented upside down as a guide. The person then attempts to recreate a drawing of the picture. This exercise helps to train the person to draw what she sees rather than what she thinks she sees or what the picture “should” look like.

As is often the case at the Socrates Café, the dissection of an idea occasionally veers a little left or right in other ways.

We covered such topics as the power of dominant hands, and why some people who have brain-affecting diagnoses like ADHD or autism tend to do less well on IQ tests (which are designed for left-brain thinking.)

In a study under the NIH, IQ in children with autism spectrum disorders: data from the Special Needs and Autism Project (SNAP), researchers concluded, “ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] was less strongly associated with intellectual disability than traditionally held and there was only limited evidence of a distinctive IQ profile.” This study suggests that “different” thinking methodology does not presume a lack of intelligence.

If this assertion holds as a general baseline for most people who are diagnosed with ASD, we might consider that those so diagnosed have the ability to use the right side of the brain in ways others do not. A patron (whose particular form of autism is associated with left side thinking) cited her abilities as an example, and said that she felt odd knowing that while she is a left-brained thinker, she is also very creative. She believes that being left-brained, for example, helps her in her position as a stage manager because she can see small details in ways that others do not.

Every month we cover a new question chosen by the participants and we attempt to answer that question both based on our experiences and by listening to others’ points of view. We look forward to next month’s Socrates Café meetup. We meet monthly (on Zoom for now). Register now and we’ll send you a Reminder Link to access the meetup the day beforehand. See you then!