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How your alphabet shapes your brain

The Wall Street Journal has a great article which continues the thread of how language shapes thought. This article focuses on the differences between sequential line-based alphabets and symbolic pictorial alphabets, and how those brains differ when doing the same tasks. Confirming what we should all already know, it turns out these different types of languages use entirely different parts of the brain and entirely different methods to parse and process, and thus think in entirely different ways.

Using two brain-imaging techniques, they identified striking differences in neural anatomy and brain activity between children able to read and write Chinese easily and classmates struggling to keep pace. Both were at odds with patterns of brain activity among readers of the English alphabet.

Even when readers in both languages looked at the same written characters, the brain activity was different, other researchers found. Arabic numerals of standard arithmetic -- used by readers of Chinese and English alike -- activate different brain regions depending on which of the two languages people had first learned to read, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and China's Dalian University of Technology reported in 2006.

"In this sense, we may regard dyslexia in Chinese and English as two different brain disorders," Dr. Tan said, "because completely different brain regions are disrupted. It's very likely that a person who is dyslexic in Chinese would not be dyslexic in English."

In a generalized sense, people with Western romance-language brains parse linguistic meaning through a sequential hierarchical rule-based context, eastern cultures tend to do the same thing through logical or emotional juxtapositions of meanings created by particular symbolic groupings. In the West the ultimate point of meaning rests at the top. In the east the ultimate point is in the Center. So it goes.

Posted By jamesk at 2008-05-02 13:41:59 permalink | comments
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» More ways to bookmark this page : 2014-04-20 07:08:52
EtV7SV I really enjoy the article post.Much thanks again. Much obliged.
zupakomputer. : 2008-05-06 16:04:15
Speaking and writing are definitely using different brain areas, and again within that there are many different types of spoken language, so what way your neural pathways get most traffic down them, and what kind of traffic, that is also going to depend upon what kind of spoken langauage you use - and that applies to dialects and slang too.

With English and Chinese written, the obvious main difference is of course that English is sound matches letter, wheras Chinese is using pictograms to match to sounds - and those are built up and altered to communicate different things. Also English is static and uses punctuation to emphasise different meanings - in fact real English, literature, makes use of things like italic fonts (and eg - all caps, bold font) as a standard way of conveying a specific meaning of that particular text in italics.
And it's very can put in these pauses....for different types of emphasis too, and make use of brackets (and brackets within brackets).

Chinese is also based on the pictograms being actual drawings of what the meaning of the phrase or word they represent is, and differences in intonation as conveying meaning are able to be represented in that language, whereas in English we only really do similar when raising voice at the end of a sentence = a question. And that isn't a standard really either.

Anyway, the main point to take away from that is: pictographic languages are indeed very different from the type of alphabetics like English uses, and learning and using them makes you think differently.
Pictographs are a bit like looking at a a painting - you're interpreting a whole phrase or even as much as a sentence or concept, from one character. They also alter depending on the context they show up in.
And then in spoken languages again there are vast differences in how they are structured, whether there is a written component to them or not.

Look at Mayan: if you speak Mayan backwards phonetically it actually means the opposite meaning of it said forwards. And that's also a pictographic language too.

Ancient Egyptian: has at least three different ways of reading the pictographs. The Torah is a bit like that too - there's four at least different ways to read it, the Bible versions most people read (in the Bible) is only one of those.

Dan. : 2008-05-05 02:51:46
The major flaw I see here is that they're talking about writing and speaking as if they were the same thing. They are not. Speaking and listening involve different parts of the brain than reading and writing. Writing is not language--it is a symbolic representation of language. Differences in brain activity between users of different writing systems do not automatically translate into differences in thought patterns. The same thought patterns may manifest differently in different people, but the underlying thoughts can still be more or less the same. Not to mention that many of the world's languages have no formal writing systems at all other than those recently introduced from the outside by anthropologists and missionaries. How would this study account for speakers of those languages? All in all it looks pretty full of holes if you ask me.
Silas. : 2008-05-03 12:27:33
Our culture rewires our brains in EXACTLY 3, 476,928 different ways. Bet you can't find crunchy facts like that in your bourgeois "primary sources."

You know what they say, the neurons that fire together wire together!

Brandon : 2008-05-03 11:03:25
now that is some heavy duty programming of the human biocomputer.

how many ways does our culture rewire our brains?

awesome article

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