Reading: Language and Culture

dialects,, languages, readings

This Wall Street Journal article takes a look at how language differences mirror cultural differences. It examines how people from cultures that use words for directional terms (north, east, southwest, etc.) in everyday directions have a stronger sense of direction and that people from cultures that use passive construction are less likely to place blame on individuals for accidents.

It raises questions about the nature of language. What comes first: our thoughts about the world that then shapes the words we create to express it or the language that we learn that then shapes how we see the world? It also raises questions about what learning language means to us as we live our lives. How can we use what we know about language to make sure that we are aware of how it shapes our perceptions?

(This article is very similar to the Cracked article on how language shapes thought but is delivered in a much more formal way.)

Here are some possible discussion or reading response questions:

  • What surprised you from this article?
  • Do you believe that words shape the way that we see the world? Can you think of any examples that aren’t on this list?
  • If words shape the way we see the world, how can we use words to make sure we are seeing our world in the best way?
  • Are some ideas more important in certain cultures than in others? For example, do you think that there are certain groups of people for whom having more words for shades of a color is more important?
  • What does this tell us about how language is created?
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