Travel To Grow

Understanding The World Through Travel

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Sep '11

How Language Shapes Behavior

Recently my study of the mandarin language has lead me to a new theory.

As I’m sure you know, different languages have different ways of explaining certain concepts and ideas… and even have different words or concepts that are completely absent in other ones…

I was talking to my Chinese ex-girlfriend today and asking her how to say ‘casual dating’ in Chinese… where you are casually dating 1 or more people, but your not serious yet… your not at the exclusive point yet… before there’s a need to worry about commitment or anything like that.

and to my surprise she told me… “That’s literally impossible to say in Chinese.”

She said “we only have jian mian which means, to meet up with someone (but is mostly used for friends nothing to do with dating) or we have yue hui which is like serious exclusive boyfriend and girlfriend dating.”

Then I realized… (from my experience living in China) this is exactly how nearly all Chinese people think… you need to really really like someone before you can go on a date with them… and it needs to be exclusive and serious from the get go…

This then reminded me of all the times I tried to talk about the idea of casual dating with Chinese girls and had them accuse me of being a dirty foreigner who just wanted to play with girls… 😛

…So I thought… even though the Chinese culture is exposed to this idea of casual dating through the media and all their American tv shows, most of them still don’t understand the idea… or think its totally strange and unacceptable.

So my theory is… is that language is more important than we think… that language itself is actually creating/maintaining this cultural behavior…and that because they don’t even have a word to describe this… it is automatically such a strange foreign thing… and it make it seem normal, is nearly impossible.

If the idea itself is not even present in their language… how could it be a normal or natural thing? How could it not automatically labelled as strange by default?

It works the other way too… in China they have something called shanghuo 上火 (begin-fire?)… and because we don’t have the words to describe this concept in our language its nearly impossible for us to get it…

It has to do with the balance of Yin and Yang and is a symptom that occurs when the balance is out of wack… resulting in sore throats and other things… and has to do with certain dietary choices… and also has to do with getting angry about things… It took me like a week to understand it by that definition and it still seems so foreign to me.

But this idea of shanghuo is such a big part of their daily lives. Everyone understands it and accepts it as self evident. When I tell them we don’t have shanghuo they likely think its as strange as, how strange I think it is that they don’t have casual dating.

I think it’s likely that originally the culture created the language, but now i think the language is maintaining the culture.

Another example is “Wenti”It means question, and it also means problem.Chinese people really don’t like to question things or their bosses or authorities… They aren’t encouraged to ask questions in school, or to question the ideas of others… Perhaps because each “question” has the same meaning as being a “problem”

How much of our own behaviour is shaped by the language in which we use. We can see clear examples of this when it comes to abstract concepts such as ‘Love’… based on our language we tend to talk about love as either being an on or off switch. Either you’re in love or your not. But things in reality are never really that black and white, there are always so many shades of grey… but you can see how our behaviour within relationships is affected by this idea.

When we realize that every single thought and concept inside our minds is verbalized using the language we were raised with, the importance of our language becomes more apparent. How many real world concepts are out there in other languages that we don’t have terms for in English? How many times do we oversimplify abstract concepts like good and evil by using single words to describe them? As a world full of blind people would never know they were missing sight… What kinds of concepts and ideas are we missing because we don’t have words to describe them?

Studies have shown that language affects not only how we think but also our motion perception, emotion perception, object representation, and even memory.

One of my favourite books by Malcolm Gladwell titled “Outliers” shows that speakers of Cantonese Chinese have a much easier time remembering long strings of numbers because each number has a shorter pronunciation that its English equivalent… allowing their short term memory to hold more digits in a short amount of time. I tested this out while in China too and got crushed by my Cantonese friend!

Whether language really shapes behaviour or not, and to what extent has yet to be proven, but it makes a whole lot of sense, and can help to explain some of the troubles I have in understanding my Chinese friends and how they think.

Interesting stuff… tell me your thoughts~

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1 Comment »

  • Jhu

    ‘date’ in chinese is “yue hui” i think. :)
    I thorouphly enjoyed your blogs.