On language

You’ve probably seen the article on how language might influence the way we approach the world in this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Basically, it said our mother tongue forces us to pay attention to certain details based on the way it is used. For example, as anyone who has ever learned a European language knows, many languages assign genders to objects, forcing speakers to think about an object’s “gender,” even if it doesn’t actually have one. It also even mentioned how Chinese doesn’t have verb tenses (though I sort of disagree with the author on that), so speakers are not forced to think about time.

The article seemed intuitive — how can language not affect the way we think? — but also points out that very little scientific research has been done on exactly how it does. In other words, no one really knows how our native language has shaped what we think or what it might mean for the greater world society. But it does reinforce my long held belief (and I use “belief” because I have done zero academic research on this and am basing it purely on my observations and limited knowledge of English and Chinese) that learning Chinese can really help to understand Chinese culture and way of thinking.

My main example is this: One of the biggest differences between English and Chinese I’ve noticed is the Chinese dependence on what in English is called passive construction. I only notice this because in writing lessons, teachers drill into my head to “use active voice!” — in English, it is more engaging, less vague and less wordy than passive voice. The “less vague” argument is the most important reason, as it makes the actor — which happens to be the subject in an active-voice sentence — clear. By using the passive voice, the speaker or writer can obscure who or what is responsible for the action, placing emphasis instead on what is going on (the topic). In other words, active voice requires speakers and listeners to think about who is doing the action, which in passive construction takes a backseat and can even be ignored altogether.

Chinese is a very topic-based language. In everyday speak, sentences are often passively constructed. I wonder if this has anything to do with the many times I have had to take out something like “It is said that … ” or something “has been” something’d (found/discovered/confirmed/etc.). It is rare that the “who” is identified. Unlike in English, it is more important — at least, according to the language — to know what is being said/found/etc. than who said/found it.

To make a long story short, it would be interesting to see if this emphasis on topic and less on actor might affect the way the Chinese think. Might this explain why they seem so (for lack of better word) passive? Reluctant to take/assign responsibility? Why concrete, reliable information seems so hard to obtain?

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