Linked by Thom Holwerda on Wed 2nd Sep 2015 08:47 UTC
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The best class I took in college was on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Until that point, I had avoided philosophy of language as simply being too esoteric and hermetic to be of use. David Pears, a prodigious yet modest and approachable figure visiting from Oxford, changed my mind. In large part because of Pears' instruction, Wittgenstein's philosophy has been directly relevant to my thinking about computer science, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science. When other scholars were thinking that language and thought could be reduced to a universal, logical language, Wittgenstein turned the matter to practical questions and raised incredibly inconvenient questions that gained traction in artificial intelligence in the 1970s, 40 years after he was working on them.

Great article. I found this paragraph especially interesting:

Here's one example. The French equivalents for here and there are ici and là respectively. But if I point to a pen and say, "The pen is here," the French equivalent is not "Le stylo est ici," but "Le stylo est là." In French, là is always used to refer to a specific place or position, while in English here or there can both work. This rule is so obscure I never learned it in French classes, but obviously all native speakers learn it because no one ever uses it differently. It could just as easily be the other way round, but it's not. The situation is not arbitrary, but the way in which language carves up the interaction between mind and world varies in such a way that French speakers recognize certain practices as right or wrong in a different way than English speakers do. This may seem a trivial point, until you have to program a computer to translate "I pointed to Paris on the map and said, 'She is here.' " into French - at which point it becomes a nightmare. (If you are a translator, on the other hand, this is great news.)

Aside from the obvious fact that I can relate to the remark about translators, the author touches upon something that I benefit from every day. I always feel that being multilingual (just Dutch, English, German, some French, and a basic grasp of ancient Greek and Latin - relatively limited when compared to true multilinguals) makes it easier for me to express myself. Being able to use words, concepts, ideas, structures, and conventions from foreign languages and incorporate them into my Dutch - even if only in my inner monologue - allows me to describe objects, concepts, and situations in a more fine-grained, and therefore, more accurate manner (accurate to my perception, which does not mean "more correct" in more absolute terms).

I appreciate how ridiculously pretentious this sounds, but I do firmly believe this is true: being able to understand, read, write, and speak multiple language makes me better at language.

I'm no programmer - something I like to repeat as often as I can to make sure everyone knows where I'm coming from on the subject of programming - but I get the idea that programming is not very different in that regard. That is, being able to program in multiple programming languages will make you better at programming, and not just in the sense that you will be useful in more situations (you can find a job both as a Java and an Objective-C programmer, for instance), but also in the sense that knowledge and experience in programming language Abc will give you new and different insights into programming language Xyz, allowing you to use a certain language in more unconventional ways that people with knowledge of fewer languages might not.

As much as language is an expression of culture, a programming language is an expression of how a computer works. Both contain within them invaluable knowledge that cannot be easily expressed in other languages - and as such, they are invaluable in preserving knowledge, both culturally and digitally.

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Pretty fascinating stuff
by NuxRo on Wed 2nd Sep 2015 09:37 UTC
NuxRo
Member since:
2010-09-25

Language is pretty fascinating stuff.

Re your case on using multiple languages, I read in various places that being bilingual already can alter and increase the brain (in a positive way). People in English speaking countries are missing out (assuming they don't learn any other language).

Reply Score: 3

RE: Pretty fascinating stuff
by cfgr on Wed 2nd Sep 2015 14:33 in reply to "Pretty fascinating stuff"
cfgr Member since:
2009-07-18

I'm not sure how much of the following is true but I heard a theory for the generally more straightforward/blunt communication in Dutch and German speaking regions compared to other languages.

The argument is that in the Dutch and German language you have this funny word order (we call it tangconstructies) where the phrases in a sentence can contain other phrases and sentences. One typical example of this is the split verb phrase.

"I [have] an apple [eaten]."

This can quickly become more complex:

"I [have] (a) this morning at the farm picked (apple) that lovely red was, [eaten]."

While parsing the sentence, you have to memorize everything until the last word to figure out what is actually going on. To make this parsing process easier, you simply leave out all the fluffy descriptions and make sentences shorter. Hence the straightforward language.

Well that's the story at least. Take it with as much salt as you want.

Reply Parent Score: 2

Carewolf Member since:
2005-09-08

That is mainly high German that does that. Scandinavian languages have a word order similarly to English, though often using more nested sentences, and are considered even more blunt than German.

Reply Parent Score: 2

iswrong Member since:
2012-07-15

I'm not sure how much of the following is true but I heard a theory for the generally more straightforward/blunt communication in Dutch and German speaking regions compared to other languages.

The argument is that in the Dutch and German language you have this funny word order (we call it tangconstructies) where the phrases in a sentence can contain other phrases and sentences. One typical example of this is the split verb phrase.

"I [have] an apple [eaten]."

This can quickly become more complex:

"I [have] (a) this morning at the farm picked (apple) that lovely red was, [eaten]."

While parsing the sentence, you have to memorize everything until the last word to figure out what is actually going on.


Any sources? I am not sure how plausible this is. E.g. most speakers will probably just extrapose this morning at the farm picked. E.g.

Ik heb een mooie rode appel gegeten, die vanochtend vers op de boerderij geplukt is.

And now you have a nice canonical NP (een mooie rode appel) and a subordinate clause in the usual place ;) .

Edited 2015-09-03 13:46 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 1

RE: Pretty fascinating stuff
by unclefester on Thu 3rd Sep 2015 01:51 in reply to "Pretty fascinating stuff"
unclefester Member since:
2007-01-13

The reality is that "monolingual" native English speakers are already multilingual. They are essentially speaking an extremely complex French-Dutch hybrid chock full of Greek and Latin. In addition they use borrow words from virtually every language on Earth. The average English speker would probably use words from at least 50-100 different languages on a daily basis.

Reply Parent Score: 1

RE[2]: Pretty fascinating stuff
by cb88 on Thu 3rd Sep 2015 03:17 in reply to "RE: Pretty fascinating stuff"
cb88 Member since:
2009-04-23

Indeed... the latin roots of many english words helped me alot when I was learning Portugese.

I don't think most people think quite like I do but I tend to sort of link together certain words in my mind to help remember them... like courier and correio (the former is english of course and the latter is portugese for mail).

The pronunciation is pretty different but I am a sight reader anyway... so I suspect it my brain doesn't care much what it sounds like when remembering the word.

I think not everyone thinks in the same manner.. for instance when I think mail its like a single node with the various other things (pronunciation, imagery etc..) attached to it.. whereas I think some people sort of throw each language in separate boxes and have to sift through each to match up words... which makes speech of your second language feel more mechanical.

You can even tell when people are doing this... the pause where they form the words in their native thought process which may mean acutally making up the words in their head then translating them into the second language.

It's an important distinction... my native language is my thoughts. That said I imagine it is adapted to english and related languages... whenever I have tried learning a bit of a very different language like Chinese or Japanese there is a larger barrier for me than a langauge that is more similar to the two I already know. I think that barrier is caused by different reasons for different people as well...

Reply Parent Score: 2

iswrong Member since:
2012-07-15

The reality is that "monolingual" native English speakers are already multilingual. They are essentially speaking an extremely complex French-Dutch


If you know a thing about e.g. Dutch or German syntax, you'd know that English is a walk in the park ;) . Simple SVO order, no V2, no verb movement, no frequent topicalization of non-subjects, no scrambling.

English orthography OTOH is severely non-phonemic.

In addition they use borrow words from virtually every language on Earth.


Don't you think languages in most culturally-diverse countries are pretty much the same? E.g. Dutch also uses a large number of French and English loanwords, as well as German ones. There is a lot more to being multi-lingual than a lexicon. E.g. a monolingual English speaker has virtually no experience with cases (since English has no case system, except for some leftovers in personal pronouns), different word orders, etc.

Edited 2015-09-03 14:08 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 1

RE[2]: Pretty fascinating stuff
by acobar on Thu 3rd Sep 2015 14:40 in reply to "RE: Pretty fascinating stuff"
acobar Member since:
2005-11-15

The reality is that "monolingual" native English speakers are already multilingual. They are essentially speaking an extremely complex French-Dutch hybrid chock full of Greek and Latin.

I think you are mixing things here. The fact that a language borrow or adapt words and some concepts from others is not new nor exclusive to English, virtually all western languages, and probably all relevant ones do so. It really does not matter if English or some other language have more words, we are going to memorize just a fraction of them anyway.

What is shocking to any native English speaker is the complexity of grammar present on French, German, Portuguese and Spanish.

French is the most complex language I tried to learn. English really pales when compared.

And makes no mistake, the lack of rudimentary grammar familiarity does make you look uneducated (or lacking a polish, at least) to reasonably educated speakers, much more than a reduced vocabulary, on my opinion.

Anyway, from a sonority point of view my favorite language is Italian and, overall, my favorite language is English, even though the lack of a more rigid set of rules on phonemes and syllables pronunciation is a mistake I greatly regret on it (perhaps, this explain why we have so many variations of words vocalizations between English speakers from different regions).

Reply Parent Score: 2