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Science in New Zealand Supplement to Salient, Vol. 28, No. 7. 1965.

Science And Our Language

page 16

Science And Our Language

By D. B. Carrad, Senior Lecturer in German, Victoria University of Wellington.

The Psychology Of Language Use And The Monolingual Student

This little essay derives from thinking done in connection with the teaching of Scientific German and German Reading Knowledge. It is aimed rather particularly at informing the student who has never had contact with any language but English, but as such people seem to have become somewhat rarer than they were a few years ago, it has been given a rather broader base to bring it nearer to something like the "average student," and to interest also the language specialist.

Language suffuses, influences, in some ways dominates the mind to an extent which is perhaps still not widely enough realised. At the one end of the scale it accompanies, stimulates, shapes and records thoughts, and by recording them makes it possible to store up accumulations of thought which would be quite impossible otherwise. At the other end it cramps and confines, dictates limits and distorts responses. I, as a linguist, am sometimes attacked by a vague sense of unease, almost of guilt, when I become aware of inefficiencies in language which it must be almost impossible for a non-linguist to suspect, although it is he who has to overcome the resultant difficulties.

Has anybody reflected recently what an awful nuisance the wards 'up' and 'down' (or their equivalents in other languages so far as equivalents truly exist) are going to be to astronauts in the near future? These men will have to break through the language-barrier and re-think spatial relationships entirely. And the story must be much the same with 'hot' and 'cold.' Ordinary English usage calls 100 deg. Centigrade 'hot.' About all it can be then do about 1,000,000 deg. Centigrade is to call it 'hotter.' This is a very poor performance, and to get beyond it, English has to fall back on such semi-extraneous aids os profanity, tone of voice, or a scientific measuring rod.

Anybody who studies a foreign language gets a few clues about this, of course. He can see that his mother-tongue is not one of the fundaments of nature, but is only one of many existent (let alone possible) ways of formulating descriptions of events, or of communicating commands. This breaks the hypnotic ban to an extent, and enables the student to discover (or rather re-discover, for he lived apart from language once before, after all) that there are realities beyond the verbal formulation which are—in modern life— an overwhelmingly predominat part of the manifestation of his thought.

I said earlier that language accompanies, stimulates, shapes and records thought. It is a fact that almost all human activity, even when it is not actively directed by speech communication between two or more persons, is accompanied by a muttered commentary, inaudible and perhaps largely unconscious. When working alone, one talks oneself through one's action, like an unselfconscious child in solitary play. This is the measure of the dominance of speech over human life. This dominance is only mitigated by the survival of other forms of mental imagery, based directly upon the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste.

I have a paradoxical theory that a good linguist must have at least one nonverbal streak in him. I, for instance, have a very intense visual imagination and a strong spatial sense, and I am clearly aware that I use these as tools with which to break into languages from the outside, as it were—and out of them again. I can see or sense the things the languages are trying to describe, and this helps me to understand ideas in a language, and if necessary to re-express them in another language. I often ask myself how I would get on if I were more exclusively verbal in mental type.

Let us now consider the case of a highly verbal mind, with poorly developed (or perhaps I should say: much atrophied) sense-imagery. This mind is imprisoned within its native language and, according to my somewhat paradoxical theory, will tend not to learn foreign languages. Fundamentally, this mind is likely to be of abstract type: the over-reliance on verbal formulation represents a move away from the concrete, which can be apprehended by the senses. In a manner, then, it is a mind of an advanced type, but it is clearly not a well-equipped or rich mind. (In point of practical fact, minds which are good at abstraction are usually rich also in sensual imagery, but all types are possible).

There was the outstanding case, many years ago, of a student who had to translate the German word "Kabel." Apparently the general shape of the word suggested nothing to him, and although he knew that this Kabel joined a number of electrical apparatus together, he couldn't see what it was. I think that, in this man's mind, the notion of the equipment which connects electrical gear over longish distances was recorded in the actual words 'flex' or 'cable,' rather than in any sensory image, and as his verbal categorizations were petrified and inflexible (never having been questioned) he refused the vertiginous associative leap from Kabel to cable. His scientific training may also have conditioned him too rigidly against "jumping to conclusions."

Such a mind will grow up closely intertwined with the mother-tongue. Its operations will be particularly dependent upon the forms and patterns of that tongue. If then, at a comparatively late stage (e.g. at university) this mind has after to take cognizance of a second language, then it may suffer considerable shock, and a sense of dislocation. Being called upon to think in terms of other patterns than those to which it is accustomed, it is apt to feel that it is being asked to manufacture thoughts when the very substance of which thoughts are made has been denied it.

At the back of most monolinguists' thoughts about 'foreign' languages is a good-natured assumption that 'they' talk and write just like 'we' do, only substituting for every English word the appropriate corresponding foreign word. The fact that they actually not only use different words, but use them in all sorts of weirdly, fearsomely and frustratingly different ways, seems a betrayal of our common humanity, a piece of needless insanity, a monstrous impertinence, a viciously hostile act intended only to inflict mental torture upon Anglo-Saxon students.

It is not really so. Their languages have merely developed along different lines. And, in so far as it is couched in language terms, their thinking also. The gulf between is not quite as unbridgable as it at first appears. Multilingual children switch quite happily horn language to language according to the playmates they are with, without much confusion and with no particular signs of mental breakdown.

Translation from one language to another is a somewhat more specialised business. Not all people who can speak several languages can translate between them efficiently. Translation seems to presuppose a certain amount of thinking which is outside the realm of language altogether. A given piece of text in German, for instance, must be grasped and understood in the realm of 'pure' (as opposed to expressed) thought, and then re-expressed in English.

Now people differ considerably in the amount of what I have called 'pure' thought, that they are naturally capable of doing, because of the different degrees of sensual, as opposed to verbal, imagery, they are capable of; and so we come up against the paradox that the type of mind which is particularly fully 'language-dominated' is poor at translating between languages.

Anybody who wishes to translate between two languages must, then, to some extent escape—or rather re-escape—from the domination of his mother-tongue. This, as we have said, is apt to be a painful and disturbing process, but it is probably a very healthy thing for the mind to do, apart from its necessity for the very limited purpose of translation.

I think this brings us back to the idea implicit in the first paragraphs of this essay: the dangers inherent in too complete a domination of thought by language (particularly by one language only), and perhaps also in the limitations o language per se. A student who is limited to one language is very apt to be limited in much more than just this respect. Having no other language upon which to exercise his purchase, he cannot easily lever himself out of the mould of his native language, and think beyond or between its categories. This inability is never absolute, of course. The creative scientist should be able to draw upon the inspiration of his science, and exercise free imagination within its sensory as well as abstract fields. But — there is a big 'but' — his science also has been taught him through the medium of his native language. He is, therefore, more closely caught than he perhaps realises — indeed, precisely the insidious thing about this situation is that he cannot realise how closely confined he is. If we then add to this the fact that the native language is often inadequately taught in modern schools, alas perhaps rather particularly in New Zealand schools, then we may feel that there is cause for real fear in this matter.

There is no question but that one of the major tasks of latter 20th century man is to get a fresh hold on language. The old techniques of language use are failing us, and we need new ones. I am not alone, amongst older academics, in feeling that the thinking going on about me has lost quality in the last two decades or so, as a result of the widening gap between the old grammatical disciplines of my boyhood (which the scientists of those days also shared, nota bene) and the new, fantastically burgeoning, scientific adventures of now. I deliberately contrast the words disciplines' and 'adventures,' though of course this distinction could not be maintained very far.

This loss of quality is probably only a temporary phenomenon, but it is a dangerous one, particularly at the present juncture in political and military history. I am quite clear in my mind that the difficulty must be resolved by pulling our grammatical tail after us, rather than by pulling back our scientific and technological head; but the head may have to mark time a bit (pardon the mixed metaphor) while we reorganise ourselves. In more accurate terms: society as a whole will have to put more effort into bringing up to date our techniques of thought-organisation (in terms of language) and thought-communication.

What general guidance can the language specialist draw from these thoughts? Mainly the importance of building up a relationship with language which is at once self-consciously critical and creatively intimate. Language and thought are at once twain and identical. Ideally you should be capable of removing your thought from the sphere of language will, so that you can operate independently of language formulations. When, in this way, yon have arrived at a result which is pure thought, free of all verbal constraint, then make language do your bidding and convey that thought, in complete integrity to others. If necessary, create language afresh in order to do this. Do not allow the language to dominate your mind, but turn your mind around upon the language; operate it, manipulate it, change it, make it over anew if necessary. Then, as you pour creative energy into the language, from outside itself, you will find that it pours creation back. For, after all, language is not only a medium of communication but is also the major laboratory for the processing of abstractions, and in this respect is as formidable an entity as the thought we have been at pains to emancipate from it.

The basic principle is maximum flexibility combined with maximum power; and this principle obtains in all creative relationships—including no doubt that between man and woman.

This principle carries over also into the learning of a foreign language for active use. Unfortunately this needs to be dealt with in a much longer article.