In these days, artificial intelligence technology, including machine translation, has been improved rapidly and is still going. Maybe it seems like we won’t need to learn foreign languages, in the near future.
I don’t think so, but why? I hope to communicate with foreign friends directly, but that is not all.
My opinion is, learning foreign languages give us the improvements in thinking ability.
I’ll try to explain something related that opinion from now.
When someone listens/reads a word, it invokes a recognition inside his/her brain.
For example, a word “dog” should invoke an image of a dog in your brain.
As illustrated above, a common image has different correspondent words in different languages. That’s why we can translate them.
However, is it strictly “common”? Can we say there are no difference between the two “common images”? Absolutely, not.
Actually, “recognition” come from one’s own knowledge and experience, and there are own cultural backgrounds behind them.
When someone does something with his intention, there is a thought inside his/her brain. Let’s take a look into the structure of thinking.
Let’s presume that a thought was a composition of five elements illustrated below.
We have to understand that these elements, especially upper three are having a close relationship with language and culture.
Actually, just like a tower built on the ground, the elements are composed upon the language and culture complex.
However, what does it mean, “close relationship”?
Let’s study it in more detail.
For example, speaking about “formula”, it is a kind of hypothesis and is written as “If … then … else …” structure or as mathematical expression like “y = 3x +c”.
It needs three kinds of activities to produce a “formula”. Those are based on vocabulary and systematical notation method, thus it means “language and culture complex”.
Suppose that there are a lot of things with wide variety (e.g. a lot of color chips).
Too many varieties of things are difficult to remember, so people tend to categorize them. The categorizations are different depends on each language, such as;
As illustrated above, there are approximately two types of color name system. Type 1 system gives individual name to chip1 and 5. Type 2 don’t. English is an example of type 1. Old Japanese is type 2. There are a lot of other languages of type 2 even in the modern world.
In English, chip 1 and 5 have typical, simple color name. Chip 2 and 4 are similar to them. These can be categorized to “blue” and “green”.
However, what about chip 3? It is ambiguous.
An experiment is designed as below;
Step1: Divide the subjects into two groups. Group1 contains the subjects of type 1 language speakers. Group2 contains of type2.
Step2: Show a typical color (e.g. chip 1 or 5) to a subject. Ask the subject to remember that color. Hide the chip.
Step3: Show ambiguous color (e.g. chip 3) to the subject. Ask a question, “Is this color similar to the previous chip?”
The result is, differences in answers were found depending on the subject’s speaking language. Group1 subjects tend to answer “yes” to the question more than group2 subjects.
This phenomenon is called as “Language induced categorical perception bias”.
This is only one example. There are a lot of other experiments which show the close relationship between thinking and language.
When it comes to thinking about complex ideas, human being cannot think by using an image of real world objects itself. We need verbalized formula, and any formula is a composition of categorized, abstracted recognition.
Thus, categorization (i.e. abstraction) cannot be independent of language.
Therefore, our way of thinking is closely connected with our language.
That’s why we have to learn other languages.
Learning foreign languages is not memorizing word to word mappings, but acquiring different viewpoint and way of thinking. It gives us not only better communication with foreigners, but also much powerful thinking ability.
That is my opinion.