Friday, 26 May 2017

Sapir-Worf Hypothesis and Kanji

Dear Reader,

This is a post about the Sapir-Worf hypothesis and its relation to learning kanji.

I went to see the movie, "Arrival" recently. It got me thinking about how one's perspective of the world is changed by language learning. One of the major themes in the movie concerns the strong form of the Sapir-Wof hypothesis; linguistic determinism - our thoughts are constrained by language.

This strong form has largely been disproven, yet researching this topic lead to some interesting topics of discourse. For example; not all languages are egocentric. When expressing direction, Aboriginal languages use external landmarks to express direction. So, instead of saying, "My left ear hurts", they say, "My ear to the northeast hurts".

The weak form of the hypothesis relates to linguistic relativity. Our perception of the world is influenced by the languages we speak. Having listened to a few talks by Steve Pinker, I can't argue with the fact that babies are thinking about the world, yet lack the linguistic ability to express their thoughts. So in a nutshell; you could say there is a non-vocalized internal neurological code called "mentalese" which we externalize through a mechanism called language. 

So, taking the strong form of the hypothesis; in the movie (spoiler warning!) our hero learns an alien language in which time is thought of as non-linear. As a result, she can see into the future. I love the way the written language is circular - in a language where time is not thought of as linear; why would a language go from left to right, top to bottom?

The Heptapods Writing System - "Life"
Created by Martine Bertrand

Okay, so what has this got to do with learning kanji?  It's been about a year and a half since I got serious about learning kanji. On this journey to literacy, I've been noticing how this jigsaw puzzle of literacy seems to take shape; and just perhaps my perception of the language ... of the world ... is gradually shifting into new perspectives. 

It's not so much that I'm thinking in Japanese; after all, I'm still a westerner with my perception of the world seen through western eyes in a fishtank of western culture. Yet, living in Japan, learning Japanese; perhaps the lens that gives me the clearest insight into the Japanese mindset seems to be the kanji. 

The Japan around me slowly begins to make more sense. It's a bit like when you buy a new car; suddenly you start seeing other people driving the same car as you. Same thing with kanji ... walking around these neon lit streets of kanji, suddenly, the characters you can read emerge from the intangible squiggles of yesterday. 

As the friend who told me at the start of this journey, "Learning kanji unlocks the language". Certainly, these internal linguistic algorithms are yet to be optimized to fluency. And perhaps fluency is really all about how quickly the mentalese gets translated? 

So many words I've acquired seem to have been deposited into the passive memory space inside my head. Words like "election" (選挙 - senkyo) for example, float somewhere between my ears, yet during a conversation today I couldn't recall it instantly. That word has not been deemed important enough to my daily conversation to earn its rightful place in active memory.

So I have to think about the kanji characters ... how is election thought of in kanji? ... and suddenly I'll think ... choose ... raise ... election ... and I'll be thinking in another perspective ... "choose how society will be raised" ... and I'll see the kanji for choosing ... 
選 ... sen .. and I'll see the kanji for raise ... 挙 ... kyo ... oh yes ... put them together ... "選挙" - senkyo.  

What I'm doing in order to recall that word seems to be quieting the English voice and thinking, "How do Japanese people perceive this thing?" It's not that my brain is rewired to think in Japanese, after all, native and non-native alike, we all think in "mentalese" ... but the processing of passive vocabulary has something of a detour through the less trampled path of a foreign language.  Over time, those paths get trampled more and more until the neural connections have strengthened to the point where I think election and instantly think - 選挙.

However, what interests me is the fact that, by virtue of thinking in kanji, I'm kind of re-enforcing a Japanese perspective of words. I guess that's linguistic relativity - the way we think about things is influenced by the way they're seen through the lens of another language.

So today, I filled out my postal voting form today and instead of thinking of an election as something where we just tick a box for the person we hope does the least amount of harm to society, I was thinking that I would choose the person I believe might do the best job in raising the standard of life in society.

Woah ... what just happened ... my perception changed. Is it time for me to do that speech at the end of Rocky 4?