The world of Brain research has a secret flaw. For decades, studies of how the mind works have mostly been conducted by English-speaking scientists on English-speaking participants. However, their conclusions are described as universal. Now, a growing body of work suggests that there are subtle cognitive differences between populations that speak different languages—differences in areas such as perception, memory, mathematics, and decision-making. The generalizations we make about the mind may, in fact, be wrong.
In a study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive ScienceAsifa Majid, professor of cognitive science at Oxford University, has highlighted the deficit in understanding that has come from ignoring languages other than English. “We can’t take for granted that what happens in English is representative of the world,” she says.
Take, for example, the Pirahã, an indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon. They are numbered roughly – what scientists call a “one-two-many” system. And as a result, they don’t perform well on arithmetic experiments compared, for example, to speakers of languages like English with a vocabulary that includes large cardinal numbers—20, 50, 100. “The way your language expresses numbers affects in the way you think about them”, says Majid. “It is having the words themselves with numbers that allow us to think large precise quantities. So 17 or 23, that doesn’t seem possible without having words in your language.”
If you are reading this, you speak (or understand) English. This is not surprising, because it is the most widely used language in human history. Currently, about one in six people speak English to some extent. Yet there are over 7,150 living languages today, and many of them make sense in completely different ways: they vary widely in sound, vocabulary, grammar, and scope.
When English is used to conduct research on how the human brain works, scientists formulate questions based on the elements that English expresses, making assumptions about what mind, knowledge, or cognition are based on how the language describes them—not what it might represent them. in other languages or cultures. Moreover, participants in cognition studies tend to be “strange”—Western, educated, industrialized, affluent, and Democratic. But the majority of the world’s population does not fall into this category. “There is a bias in academic research, partly because of where it is done, but also because of the meta-language of speaking about the research,” says Felix Ameka, professor of ethnolinguistics at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was blind. involved in Majid’s work.
“If I ask you now, ‘How many senses does it have?’ I suspect your answer will be five,” Ameka says. But in the West African Ewe language, spoken by over 20 million people, including the Ameka, at least nine senses are culturally recognized—such as one focused on being physically and socially balanced, one focused on how we move through world and one revolving around what we feel in our bodies. However, despite this being well known, it does not cross what is classified as scientific fact. “Western science has this big wall,” says Ameka.