For most of us, language is simply a tool of communication. We do not think about language; we simply use it. However, as Prof. Christiane Fellbaum explained in her extensive and fascinating talk about language and human cognition, the systematic study of language can yield fundamental and surprising insights into the way that our brains work.
Language, at the most basic level, is a mapping between “concepts” and particular sounds and letters. For instance, the word “chair” (a sequence of five alphabet letters) conjures in our minds the “concept” of a chair. There are, of course, more abstract concepts, such as “freedom” or “tragedy.” A person who speaks one language has a single reservoir of concepts mapped to his or her lexicon – the constantly changing sum total of words her or she knows.
Interesting questions arise, however, when we explore people who can speak two or more languages. This pertains to both bilinguals and any person who has studied a foreign language. In theory, there are two possible ways in which a person acquires and uses a second language (in the case of bilinguals, the language in which they are less proficient).
The first way is that the person simply builds associations between words in the native language and words in the second language – for instance, by studying from vocabulary lists. No mapping is made between the second language and the mental reservoir of concepts. This is called “word association.” The second way, which usually indicates higher proficiency, is that the person builds a direct conceptual mapping between the second language and the existing reservoir of concepts. This is called “concept mediation.” A variety of extremely clever psycholinguistic experiments can be used to show differences between the two models.
One implication that these models have for translation is that a weak understanding of a second language (“word association”) will yield fast but inaccurate translation. Though it is somewhat counterintuitive at first sight, a person with greater proficiency in a second language (“concept mediation”) will take longer to translate. This is because he or she will look at the word in the source language, go back to the reservoir of concepts, and then look for the most appropriate way to express that concept in the target language.
Of course, these models of language processing are limited. For most multilinguals, the degree of proficiency in a second language can be explained by a mixture of word association and concept mediation. There are also important questions that can be asked about the assumption of a single reservoir of concepts for multiple languages. It is apparent to any of us who speak more than one language that there are differences between concepts that can be expressed by different languages.
A controversial hypothesis, the Whorfian hypothesis, extends the logical implications of such differences. A language shapes the way that a person perceives, thinks about, and conceptualizes the world. Therefore, bilinguals and multilinguals will have several complex, ambiguous and possibly conflicting world-views.
If all of that induces existential doubts and headache-inducing questions, we can perhaps all take comfort in the fact that most of us know approximately 40,000 words in English. (Give yourself a pat on the back.)
There will be one more speaker event before the end of the spring semester – Prof. Sandra Bermann on April 27th, during the second Campus Preview weekend.
We will keep you posted, so look out for details!