Your Culture, Language, & Memory

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Culture affects everything we think & do. A fascinating study published by the Max Planck Society indicates that culture, through language, can even affect our working memory. 

Languages can be classified by where the “head,” or main idea, is in relationship to things that modify the head. When the head is followed by modifying elements, it’s called “right-branching (RB).” When the things that describe & give context to the head come first, it’s called “left-branching (LB).” Left-branching languages can be very vague in meaning until the head is revealed in the last part of a sentence. Many Asian languages are LB, while most European languages are RB.

For example, in English language word order, one would normally say “The person who was sitting at the bus stop.” The Japanese word order (translated literally into English) would be “Who was sitting at the bus stop, the person.” Chinese language tends to be left-branching as well. In English, we would say “the person who I met yesterday,” with the head being the person and stated first, and the descriptive phrase following. In Chinese, the phrase would look like 昨天遇到的人 (Zuótiān yùdào de rén), which translates literally as “yesterday met person.”

These are the 8 languages, 4 left-branching, 4 right-branching, that the experimenters tested. Photo © MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology
This is a representation of the memory tests used by the workers. Photo © Amici et al. (2019)

Scientists tested short-term working memory of speakers of LB & RB languages.  Perhaps because they must carry the context (the modifiers) in their minds before the head is revealed, left-branch speakers showed better working memory for stimuli that came initially, but right-branch speakers were better at remembering final stimuli.

Languages aren’t 100% Left-Branching or Right-Branching. English, in fact, is quite flexible with word order. There is certainly much more to learn about the connection of language to other cognitive processes. But this shows that culture has a profound effect on us, & we’ll understand each other better when we’re aware of that.

Learn culturally-relevant leadership & soft skills @ Soft Power Skills Academy.

You can read a more detailed layman’s explanation of the study @ Max Planck Society’s website.

Or you can read and download the scientific study as published in “Scientific Reports” via @ this link.

And here’s a great TED Talk about other ways that language affects the way we think.

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