Posts Tagged ‘language’

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a really interesting programme this week entitled Metaphor for Healing. I don’t think you’ll be able to listen to it (unless it’s still on the BBC iPlayer) but they’ve put up a good page about it on the bbc website. There’s obviously a link between issues of metaphor and those of visualisation. In fact, in some ways metaphors are tools for visualisation aren’t they? The programme talked a bit about Jan Alcoe, who used visualisation to both cope with both her disease and her treatment. It’s not hard to think that every patient should have a session about this before undergoing chemo and radiotherapy. I’ve read a lot about visualisation in cancer settings before so although her story is a particularly impressive one, it didn’t tell me anything really new. However, the rest of the programme was about the conscious use of metaphor in consultations, and I’ve not heard that discussed so clearly before.

Dr Grahame Brown, a musculo-skeletal specialist at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, claims he is able to save hundreds of patients from the need to have spinal surgery every year simply by “reframing the negative metaphors that have been unwittingly used by their doctors that can lead to a destructive and self-fulfilling cycle”. Many of the patients he sees have been referred for surgery after becoming convinced their spine is ‘crumbling’ or that they have ‘degenerating’ disc disease, when in fact they have a prolapsed disc or other normal wear and tear that is common in most people. Yet anxious patients latch on to these suggestions and become convinced that things are only going to get worse.

Now this really is fascinating. By becoming aware of the metaphors used by the patient (typically those given to them by other doctors) which make it harder for a patient to break free from chronic pain, then giving them different metaphors, he helps them change the way they think about, perceive, and, ultimately, experience their pain. He claims that this can have such a dramatic, quick effect, that many escape not only the need for surgery, but also escape from their pain.

It’s an impressive outcome.

There is specific mention of two techniques, or approaches, based on metaphor, used by people in this programme – the Human Givens method, which is a fascinating counseling technique, and the Clean Language approach, which is based on a technique developed by a practitioner inspired by “Metaphors we live by” written by Lakoff and Johnson, one of the books which have changed the way I think about the world. Fascinating to see these ideas turn into practice.

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In the Aymara language (a high Andean Indian language) the future and the past are in exactly the opposite positions from where they are to English speakers. You and I say that the future lies before us, and the past somewhere behind us. In Aymara, it’s the exact opposite.

But the Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.

…….the Aymara speakers see the difference between what is known and not known as paramount, and what is known is what you see in front of you, with your own eyes. The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or “past,” literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.

(this according to research published in “Cognitive Science”)

Just pause for a moment and wonder what difference that would make to the way you understand life, or, at least, how you understand how to move through the flow of time.

Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University gives us even more food for thought on this subject in an article in the Edge. Look at this example she gives –

Suppose you want to say, “Bush read Chomsky’s latest book.” Let’s focus on just the verb, “read.” To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like “red” and not like “reed.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you’d use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you’d also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you’d use a different form of the verb than if he’d diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you’d have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you’d use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you’d use a different verb form.

She asks if this means that the speakers of these different languages end up remembering their experiences differently from each other, and if so, does that mean they actually see and understand the world differently?

How does this relate to the fact that we all live on different planets?

She gives us quite a mind boggling example of how we orientate ourselves physically in the world through our use of language by telling us about an Aboriginal tribe from northern Australia, the Kuuk Thaayorre.

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.1 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. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 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.

This is not just an amazing skill but it’s a skill English speakers just don’t have. There is a complete synthesis of language and physical orientation that makes a huge practical difference to the skills needed to find their way around. These are fascinating pieces of evidence that supports Lakoff and Johnson’s theories about the basic conceptual metaphors we use being related to how we experience our physical existence. But she goes on to give other examples, such as how Mandarin speakers talk of time vertically where English speakers talk of it horizontally (“Point to a spot which represents tomorrow” leads English speakers to point in front of them, and Mandarin speakers to point vertically upwards)

What does this mean for someone who learns another language? In Lera Boroditsky’s work, she investigated this –

In our lab, we’ve taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think. In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.

That confirms what you probably suspected already….that learning a new language doesn’t just let you communicate with people who speak that language, but it provokes you to see and understand the world differently.

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