Are Languages the Key to Problem Solving?

Are Languages the Key to Problem Solving?

“If digital technologies allow us to communicate effectively in a wide range of languages
instantly, is there a need to take up valuable curriculum time with language lessons
anymore? A growing body of evidence shows that different languages impact how we
perceive the world and how we think. Might the greatest value of learning other languages lie
not in acquiring communicative competence but rather in developing thinking skills, helping
students to be more creative, solve problems and build relationships? If so, we need to
reconsider the nature and objectives of our language provision in schools in the digital era.” Introduction by Karen L. Taylor (International School of Geneva, Associate Professor in Practice, Durham University School of Education) to my article in Volume 10 of the RIPE (Research Informed Practice in Education) Research Journal
, the text of which is reproduced below.

RIPE Research Journal Cover

Second or foreign language education is usually based on the assumption that language is about communication. “Communicative competence can be considered to be the target of second language acquisition, a main goal of second or foreign language teaching and learning, or the object language testers seek to measure via performance tests.” (Whyte, 2019, p.1) Put more succinctly, “the goal is to enable students to communicate.” (Forsberg, Mohr & Jansen, 2018, p.31)

It follows that unless a learner is able to reach a relatively high degree of communicative competence, then learning a second language is of no value to them. If, with very limited contact with a language that is foreign to their environment, that seems impossible then it is little wonder that the majority of students – at least in English-medium schools – do not choose a foreign language for public examination.

In the United Kingdom, for example, only 20% of Year 7 pupils say they plan to take a second language GCSE (Standley, 2023) and fewer than 10% of A-Level candidates take a language other than English (Association for Language Learning, 2022); in the United States, only 20% of students across the entire K-12 spectrum were enrolled in a foreign language class (Devlin, K., 2018); and in Australia, the number of Year 12 students taking a foreign language dropped from just over 11% in 2010 to 8.6% in 2021 (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting, 2023).

The development of AI-enabled technologies which provide translation between a vast number of languages on-demand – now even presenting the translation in the voice of the original speaker (see, for example, this showreel from HeyGen – means that a high degree of communicative competence in a multiplicity of other languages is immediately available to us without us needing to learn any of them. Language learning would appear to have found its rightful place on the margins of the curriculum in most schools and, as the technology continues to improve, we might reasonably expect the popularity of language-learning to shrink further until it is unsustainable to include it in the curriculum at all.

Unless, of course, language is about more than communication. The Information Age that has given rise to that AI-enabled translation is underpinned by Boolean logic. One hundred and fifty years ago, the person behind that logic declared: “That language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought, is a truth generally admitted.” (Boole, 1854, p.17). We do not just use language to communicate; we also use it to think.

To put it another way, language is how our brains process what we perceive. But perception itself is not simply a matter of us receiving data (through our sound and light and other sense receptors); it is a product of our brain’s processing of that data. “Complex mechanisms in the brain filter the incoming sensory information and shape the representation of the world in our minds … Perception is highly selective; the brain constantly decides what information is important enough to reach our consciousness.” (Dwarakanath & Panagiotaropoulos, 2023) Which begs the question: does the language we use make any difference to how we think and even what we perceive?

Noam Chomsky (often dubbed the “father of modern linguistics”) would say “no,” arguing that language is a part of human nature and that all humans essentially speak dialects of the same language. For decades, alternative views were inextricably linked to the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity: that what a person is able to perceive and to understand is determined by the language they speak, with the result that – in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein – “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Wittgenstein, 1922, p.74) Since this is demonstrably nonsense (just because my language does not have a word for something, does not mean I cannot see it), the very idea that language might have an impact on our perception and our thinking was largely abandoned by linguists. Thankfully, with the rise in popularity of neuroscience and the work of linguists like Lera Boroditsky and Guy Deutscher, the baby has been retrieved from the drain and fresh exploration of a topic that is at least as old as Plato has begun again.

In her 2017 TED talk “How language shapes the way we think,” (Boroditsky, 2017) Boroditsky reported that when Spanish speakers were shown a picture of a bridge (which in Spanish is a masculine noun), they were more likely to use descriptors like “strong” or “long” while German speakers (for whom bridge is a feminine noun) would more frequently describe it as “beautiful” or “elegant.” Of course, it is not that Spanish speakers never described the bridge as “beautiful” or “elegant,” much less that they were incapable of seeing it in that way. Nor indeed that “strong” or “long” cannot be used to describe the feminine. But the grammatical gender of the word “bridge” in the speaker’s language did seem to make it more likely that they would see the object in one way rather than another.

Quoting Roman Jakobson’s encapsulation of Franz Boas’s insight that: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey,” Deutscher agrees that whilst the language we use does not prescribe how we think, it will inevitably have affect our thinking. “If different languages influence their speakers’ minds in varying ways, this is not because of what each language allows people to think but rather because of the kinds of information each language habitually obliges people to think about.” (Deutscher, 2011, p.152) He illustrates this with a Papua New Guinean language in which cardinal directions are used even in greetings. If people cannot say “hello” without knowing which way north is, they necessarily pay continual attention to it whereas speakers of other languages usually do not.

There is much more research to be done and the debates will continue to rage in academia for some time yet about how exactly language, perception and thought are connected. In the meantime, the pertinent question for educators is not so much how other languages may or may not make “them” think but rather whether or not those languages might help “us” to get out of the ruts in our own thinking.

Ed Yong has written a fascinating exploration of perception in an enormous variety of animals. The title he chose was “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.” His aim was not so much to inform us about the peculiar Umwelten of other creatures as it was to open our eyes to vast aspects of our own environment to which most of us are blind. We are not to become spiders but rather to have our boundaries expanded because of what the spider perceives, for “to perceive the world through other senses is to find splendour in familiarity, and the sacred in the mundane.” (Yong, 2022, p.353) Yong quotes Marcel Proust’s remark that: “The only true voyage … would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes … to see the hundred universes that each of them sees.” Languages can give us those eyes, which is why Boroditsky is calling her upcoming book: “7000 Universes,” corresponding to the estimated number of different languages that we humans speak.

On a flight out of Kuala Lumpur, I had nothing to read but the safety instructions in front of me, which were written in English and Malay. I got to wondering which of the words meant “seat” and, with the help of an online translator, discovered that my life jacket was under “the place where I sat down.” I was used to thinking about a seat as an object (which might be large or small, clean or dirty, plain or luxurious etc), but Malay shifted my focus to what I was doing.

In Singapore, I noticed that many streets were called “Jalan” something. “Jalan” predictably turned out to be Bahasa for “street,” but a local friend helped me see that it is also the word for “to go,” “means” and “behaviour” – highlighting the inseparability of what I do, where I do it, how I do it, and how it affects others. The lack of any semantic connection between “go”, “street”, “means” and “behaviour” in English makes it easy for me to forget this but Bahasa alerts me to that reality again.

Online, another friend unpacked for me the Hebrew for a verse from the Bible that is often quoted or alluded to in parental and educational literature: “Train up a child in the way they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6). I discovered that the qualifier of “the way” – translated here as “they should go” – is a word that means “mouth” (of a person, animal, well or sack). From that fundamental meaning, the word came to refer also to the “edge” or “limit” of something (presumably thinking about the lips around the mouth); to “eating” or “tasting” or “speaking” (what you do with your mouth); and to “commands”, “instructions” or “wishes” (what you convey by speaking). In the Hebrew I was made conscious of the juxtapositions between openings and boundaries, between the tangible and the aspirational, and between behaviours and instructions in a way that I was not in an English translation.

“A rose by any other name – be it “trëndafili” (Albanian), “kacay” (Somali) or “gül” (Turkish) – would smell as sweet.” But the names we assign to things carry a range of meanings and associations in one language which they may not carry in another. The poppy reminds Brits of lives sacrificed for freedom since 1914, but it reminds Chinese of 19th century British imperial oppression which began with the first Opium War (1839-1842). Search online for images of “chien” and you will not get the same results as if you search for “dog.” The equivalent words in different languages show us different aspects of the same common concept and alternative ways in which ideas can be grouped together. They evoke different emotions, helping us to see how something we think of as negative could equally be a force for good – and vice versa.

Language does not just give us labels for things; it also gives us specific ways to arrange them. In English if you tell me that you opened your door to a “dark, sweaty, drooling, snarling …” I will all the while be wondering what this terrifying threat is that you faced and yet mercifully seem to have survived, which is great for suspense if that is what you are going for. In French the same anecdote would begin with you opening your door to a “kitten,” which – poor thing – had somehow been left “dark, sweaty, drooling, snarling …” The same labels but two very different ways of arranging them, resulting in opposite emotional responses. Each arrangement is useful in different contexts and for different purposes.

To use a computing analogy, languages are human thought algorithms and different algorithms yield different results. The value of us learning Chinese or Portuguese or Amharic is thus not only – or even primarily – so that we can communicate with “them”: it is so that we can see things in front of “us” that we had hitherto ignored or undervalued; it is so that we can see things that are familiar to us from fresh perspectives; it is so that we can think more broadly and creatively about the situation we are in. These are the skills we need for problem-solving, and we can begin to acquire them through other languages long before we reach any kind of communicative fluency (if we ever do).

The goal of a pedagogical approach based on this view of language would not be to inhabit another’s world but rather to make better sense of our own. I do not foresee living or working amongst Malays or Indonesians and I could not live and work amongst ancient Hebrews even if I wanted to. If the sole purpose of learning Bahasa were to communicate better with Malays or Indonesians, I would have no interest in doing so. Yet it appears that Bahasa-speakers may see things in my environment that I do not – or at least that I tend not to take notice of. “The languages you know influence how you see the world quite literally.” (Marian, 2023, p.32) And that is both relevant and interesting to me.

This sounds self-centred, and it is – because we are. British cartographers put the UK in the centre of their world maps and declared that everything to the right was “East” and everything to the left was “West” and the time was ahead of or behind the time in Greenwich. China’s leaders called their country the “Middle Kingdom” because they perceived themselves as being at the centre of the world. American astronauts took a picture of the world from space, which for years was the home screen for all iPhones. It showed only one country on our little blue and green ball: North America was not only the centre of the world, it was the world. And, shown a group photo, most of us look first for ourselves in it.

Is not one of the points of learning a foreign language to draw us out of ourselves and develop empathy? Indeed it is, but we have to start where we actually are. If another’s language helps us in our own situation, it will engender a degree of respect for its speakers. If we continue to find their insights beneficial, we will be interested in getting to know them. And the more we engage with them with respect and interest, the more empathy we are likely to develop for them. This sequence follows our personal development through infancy to maturity: from being aware only of our own needs, to realising that satisfying our needs involves other people, to recognising that those other people also have their own needs and desires. Which means that the goals of communicative fluency and empathy are not lost by this reframing of language education but rather recovered.

A famous poem (題西林壁, reproduced with notes in English at by Su Shi (1037-1101) describes hiking up Mount Lu and noticing how the shape of the mountain continually changed depending on where he was on the path. The kicker in the final line says that the only time he could not really see what the mountain looked like was when he was on top of it. If I asked you to draw a mountain – like Fuji or the Matterhorn – you would almost certainly draw a triangular shape. That is what is most obvious about those mountains to the rest of the world, but that is the one shape that those on the mountains cannot see. We need the eyes of others – of the “outsider” – to see ourselves clearly. There is a marvellous and instructive irony in this, since language is intimately bound up with identity and therefore is all-too-frequently weaponised by those battling to preserve tribal exclusivity.

This insight into perspective also means that the native speaker will often not see in their own language what the foreigner sees. If the focus of language education is on communication, then the native’s view of the language is all that matters. But for our current purposes, the outsider’s view is equally valuable. Native French speakers are unlikely ever to wonder why their numbers stop at sixty (seventy is sixty-ten, eighty is four-twenties and ninety is four-twenties-ten). They just do. That is normal. By contrast, I am not sure I have ever met a non-native learner who, on hearing this for the first time, did not immediately react: “What?!” Usually followed – silently or audibly – by: “That’s stupid!” Numbers go to a hundred. That is normal. Being repeatedly faced with such a reaction when I was teaching French led me to reflect on “why” this might be. We have ten fingers and ten toes, and ten rows of ten make a neat grid of one hundred. So having separate names for each multiple of ten up to one hundred makes sense – at least if you are working in squares. On the other hand, if you are working in circles – such as with seconds or minutes on a clock – then sixty (or a factor of sixty) is a much more useful maximum number for each cycle. Which is “right” and which is “wrong”? Of course both are right, neither is wrong, and both are useful in different contexts. If the light shines on a cylinder that is as long as it is round from the side, it will cast a square shadow. If the light shines on it from above, it will cast a round shadow. If we ever feel like we are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, it may be that we have the peg sideways.

Seeing the value in another’s perspective is a crucial skill for relationship building and developing empathy. “The ability to change your perspective in communication and in relationships is a key element of emotional intelligence, or your ability to empathize and connect with others. This type of intelligence doesn’t just help you create fulfilling relationships – it’s also essential to advancing in your career, influencing others and more.” (Robbins, n.d.) Language offers us a unique and ubiquitous tool with which to develop that skill, and yet we typically leave it to chance. Dr Robert Sharples points out that in education “we talk about the value of language learning without looking at the specific features or pedagogies that are needed to make that happen.” (Sharples, 2023) The benefits are not necessarily inherent in the language itself; they need to be drawn out by the way we approach the language.

There certainly seems to be growing evidence that polyglots enjoy improved cognitive abilities. Dr Dina Mehmedbegovic-Smith asserts: “Research evidence shows that multilingualism … is associated with better cognitive performance and higher academic achievement in children and with slower cognitive ageing, delayed onset of dementia and better recovery from stroke in later life. These benefits can already be observed during language learning, long before learners become proficient, and have been reported in language learners of all ages.” (Bak & Mehmedbegovic, 2017) It is not clear what it is about multilingualism that positively impacts our brains, but there is no reason to believe it has anything to do with communicative competence. That should cause us to reconsider the fundamental way we are used to framing language education.

We cannot turn to the Académie or the equivalent authority for native speakers because they lack the outsider’s perspective; nor can we simply pluck the language out of its social context because it lives in its speakers. Instead, we must actively identify the points of difference between “our” language and “theirs” and wrestle with the tension. This is an act of metacognition, which is another skill associated with developing problem solving. With the sixty/hundred example above, the insight came first from acknowledging the discomfort instead of trying to ignore it; secondly from reaffirming our common humanity, which meant there must be a human logic behind “sixty” just as there evidently is behind “hundred;” and then, on that basis, wondering in what circumstances “sixty” would make sense to me. Digging around that question quickly takes you back to ancient Babylon – which has nothing directly to do with either French or English but in this case helps to broker peace between the two.

It is common to think of languages as barriers that separate people. The points of greatest distance between those on each side are typically what leads the language learner to give up (“I never understood why table is feminine and the floor is masculine” or “it made no sense to me that there are sixteen different words for ‘the’” and so on). The double tragedy is that it is the very parts of another language that seem most non-sensical and contrary to us which offer the greatest potential for enabling us to see our problems from a different perspective. The wall is thickest where the gateways are.

In English-medium educational environments, we have long had two basic categories when it comes to other languages: Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) programmes aim to help “us” navigate “their” environment; and English as an Additional Language (EAL) programmes aim to help “them” navigate “our” environment. We seem to think that other languages have little if any real relevance to the majority of “us” in “our” environment. Festivals, events and performances can add moments of wonder and delight, but they rarely have anything much to do with “their” language and essentially leave “us” unchanged in our normal everyday lives.

In a welcome departure from this norm, the island of Jersey (where English is the medium of instruction in schools) in 2022 adopted a whole sector inclusive language policy based on the recommendations of Eowyn Crisfield. Recognising that “Multilingualism offers cognitive and cultural benefits to students which enables them to work effectively and collaboratively within the community,” (Languages Policy working party of the Department for Children, Young People, Education and Skills of the Government of Jersey, 2022, p.4) in this policy “learners are designated as ‘MLL’ (Multilingual Learners) if they speak a language beyond English, and EAL is now a temporary provision that some MLL receive.” (Crisfield, 2023)

It is not only “they” (the EAL students and the trans-languagers) who need support for the sake of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; it is “we” too, whose first – and perhaps only – language is the language of instruction. As one professor attests from interviewing students at Michigan State University: “almost every student has a story about the personal transformation they experienced … thanks to learning a second language.” (Stark, 2019) Whilst researchers continue to investigate the ways in which and extent to which language affects our thinking, as educators we already have enough evidence to know that it does. It is imperative that we reconsider our approach to language education, not embarrassed by our own lack of fluency, before we not only lose languages from the curriculum but fail to give our students a compelling reason to save one of humanity’s greatest assets: a diversity of languages.


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Ecolint Institute Research Journal / Journal de recherches, Vol. 10, Spring 2024

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