Eclectic Grounds

conflicts and conversation

Posts Tagged ‘intercultural

How language shapes our mode of thinking

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At Edge, Lea Boroditzky makes the compelling case that the language we use effectively determines how we perceive the world around us. It’s a fascinating article with many  illuminating examples:

Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. […] Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.

Even what might be deemed frivolous aspects of language can have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world. Take grammatical gender. […] In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures).


Written by henrik

December 27, 2009 at 9:17 am

Logic, harmony & foolishness: a look at Indian and western mythology

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Another great talk from TED, this one just up today from TED India.

Devdutt Pattanaik of Future Group aims to explain common misperceptions and misunderstandings between Indians and westerners. To do so, he takes a look at the mythology that underlies western and Indian culture. He explains why western linear thinking isn’t a universal logic, why there is no concept of harmony in Indian music – and he tells the story of Alexander, the conqueror, and the Gymnosophist, a naked wise man, who thought of each other as fools.

Watch the clip here

Written by henrik

November 19, 2009 at 11:19 pm

The Anglicisation of Dutch universities: inhibiting intercultural exchange?

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A recent NRC article warned that “English takes over at Dutch universities“. I, a German citizen who completed his undergraduate studies in an English-speaking programme in the Netherlands, of course found this very interesting.

The article describes the internationalisation of the Dutch university system. Today, more than half of the graduate programmes at Dutch universities are taught in English.

Internationalisation is the magic word everywhere. Education has become an export product and a university’s competitiveness is measured, particularly by the executive boards, by the number of foreign students it hosts. At many faculties, deans are charged with tasks like organising partnerships and student and faculty exchange programmes with universities around the world.

“It is part of globalisation,” says Gerry Wakker, deputy dean of education and internationalisation in Groningen. “More and more people are working abroad for a long or short time or they are studying there for a year. We prepare them for that by creating groups of students that are as mixed as possible.” 

The focus of the article is on the growing discontent that this internationalisation created. One professor is quoted lamenting that Dutch becomes a “second-class language”, another professor sees the quality of education in decline: 

In his inaugural lecture in 2005, [Groningen professor] Draaisma already argued that the switch to English hinders rather than helps the cosmopolitan academic. “You can travel where you like, but if all universities teach in English and prescribe English literature, then everywhere is going to start to look the same,” he says. A great deal of science can also be lost, he says. Prominent figures from history who wrote in German or French could disappear from the curriculum just like that. “Moreover, the Dutch were always an intermediary between English, German and French. We are now losing this role.”

I studied at Maastricht University (the official name changed recently from the Dutch “Universiteit Maastricht” to the English version), depicted by the author as the “leader of the pack” when it comes to internationalisation. It always felt a little odd living and studying there. All my tuition was in English and, naturally, we would also speak English, not Dutch, on campus. Hardly any foreigner made the effort to gain fluency in Dutch (I didn’t either, I must shamefully admit).

This led to quite some problems, especially since the university – located at the Germany border – recruited a high number of German students. The university newspapar last year had a focus on the conflicts between Dutch and international German students allegedly living in different worlds and even reported on a task force to be set up because Dutch students feel increasingly uncomfortable at the university. 

The whole problem with English tuition / internationalisation points to a general problem with intercultural exchange. If it merely means speaking English and taking over anglo-saxon systems (such as literature, education system), one could argue with Prof. Draaisma in that it indeed means the opposite of intercultural exchange. Instead, a global uniformity takes place by which cultural particularities tend to get lost.

It’s a tricky question. A universal language like English helps people to communicate who otherwise could not (I decided, as a German speaker, to run this blog in English so I could extend my audience and get feedback from people in different countries). Anglicisation also doesn’t necessarily mean taking over local cultures – in every culture at any given time there have been outside influences that these cultures adapt to. Yet, there seems to be a tendency for English to become globally accepted as “bridging culture” for elites and therefore becoming a hindrance for cultural exchange outside the anglo-saxon world.