Much of what we Americans appreciate about Eastern cultures, Japanese in particular, has to do with “zen” philosophies and a sense of place and peace that the US has long since lost. World-famous organizer-turned-author Marie Kondo has won international acclaim for her book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which guided readers through some Japanese methods of getting rid of what doesn’t bring you joy and valuing every item you own.
As it turns out, the Japanese language itself may be part of the reason for why people in Japan have a better sense of their place in the world compared to native English speakers who grew up in English-speaking countries.
Stephen Pinker is a world-famous linguist who has made remarkable strides studying how language and cognition interact. For a long time, it was considered common knowledge that language determines thought determines consciousness, in that very direct order. However, further research has demonstrated that language and cognition feed each other. Rather than a simple direct chain-of-command, language and the cognitive pathway inform each other.
The best example of this? Children born mute. Before they formally learn American Sign Language, children will create their own makeshift sign language called “home speak” to communicate with those closest to them. Some children develop words for spacial relationships like “in front of” and “on top of,” but others do not. In simple tests on recreating scenes, children with spacial words performed better than those who did not. Psychologists added this study to the litany of research suggesting that language and cognition influence each other.
To that end, it would make sense that people who speak different languages internalize the world differently. For example, one South American tribe did not have words for numbers higher than 5 — any greater quantity got the word that translates to, “a lot.” Thus, they had difficulty remembering specific quantities larger than 5 when researchers asked them to bring a certain number of items.
In the same fashion, Japanese and English construct their sentences differently and thus take in their surroundings in different fashions. English is a subject-verb-object language with modifiers trailing after the object in most cases. Someone does something. The sentence, “the pitcher threw the ball” demonstrates that a subject (the pitcher) does (threw) the ball (object). Alternatively, in Japanese, the language put modifiers and setting words first and then goes on to describe the subject and action of the sentence.
In 2005, scientists at the University of Michigan recruited subjects from both the US and Japan and hooked them up to a machine that tracked their eye movements. Then, they asked the subjects to view the below picture and describe it. If language does indeed impact how we take in and interpret information, then the two groups of children should both view and describe the same photo differently.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. The American subjects’ eyes started in the center with the big fish, moved to the smaller fish, and then circled the image to discern the setting. Accordingly, that’s the order in which the Americans described the image. The Japanese subjects, by contrast, took in the fish tank’s seaweedy surroundings first and then settled on the subject of the image, the fishes. And that’s exactly how they described the picture, too — setting, then subject.