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Reflections on language, community and education

The following piece was written by Dean Tanya Casas.

Linguist Guy Deutscher published a book in 2010 titled: “Through the Language Glass” in which he revisits the Sapir Whorf hypothesis that suggests that the structure of a language shapes a person’s perspective; it shapes the narratives, models and categories through which we understand the world around us; an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that an individual speaks. The result, according to Sapir-Whorf, is that we can never really fully translate one language into another. Much gets lost in translation.

As you can imagine, many have debunked this hypothesis. For example, just because you don’t speak German doesn’t mean you can’t understand the concept of Schadenfreude or the pleasure you experience from someone else’s misfortunes. And, English speaking physicists can certainly appreciate the Quechua word “PACHA” which translates into both space and time.

Even so, Deutscher suggests that there is something to be said for thinking about the ways in which a language, especially our primary language, structures the way we think about and experience the world and really shapes what we imagine to be knowable and possible.

He writes:

“When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time.”

He cites many examples. Among these there is one that has stuck with me (largely because I have absolutely no sense of direction). It is about the Guugu Yimithirr language from Australia. In English we use egocentric coordinates based directly on our bodies to determine location or movement –for instance, this paper is in front of me and the pen is to the right of me. Guugu Yimithirr speakers use cardinal directions. If they want you to move to make room, they might say something like “move a bit to the east” or “place that book on the southwest corner of the table.”

The result is that Guugu Yimithirr speakers think about space in a very different way. From the time they learn their language, they are obliged to think in terms of cardinal directions. Just imagine what it would be like to think in terms of cardinal directions at each and every moment of your waking life. Knowing cardinal directions would just become intuitive – seemingly innate and seemingly the only way to think about order and movement. Indeed, regardless of visibility conditions or whether one of the speakers is indoors with no windows, they have a spot-on sense of direction and know where north is.

So you’re probably wondering why I am even mentioning this?

First, I don’t think I could ever sense direction the way Guugu Yimithirr speakers  do – not even if I had the fortune of experiential learning in one of their communities or learning their language. Having that experience and reflecting on it would, however, broaden my appreciation for what is thinkable and for another way of being in and knowing the world.

I’m not suggesting we all need to jet set around the world and live among different peoples to broaden our sense of different ways of experiencing and ordering the world – not everyone has such opportunities.

I hope that when we imagine, and maybe even develop and plan policies to help build and sustain our communities, we reflect on the ways that the language we speak and the concepts we develop structure our ways of thinking, but can also limit our perspectives.

The 20th c. world of American exceptionalism and confidence in the universality of our political, economic, social, scientific and even educational models has given way to a 21st c of fluidity and real uncertainty.

The world has changed. We are facing climate change, the residual impacts of a global financial crisis, and political and social unrest. And China is slated to become the world’s largest economy by 2030.  But we are also experiencing the promise of new technologies.

Does the language of higher education and the models and concepts we draw upon in our curricula prepare students for these changes?

Here is an example.  A recent Washington post article about the horticulture industry that featured one of our students, Nora Palmer.

I was particularly struck when the author claimed that despite our reliance on plants, most Americans can identify no more than 10 species growing around them.

Why is this? Maybe it’s because the species around us are perceived as irrelevant to our employment and day to day jobs. A vast majority of Americans will not become farmers, nor will they be employed in a field where they are required to know the natural and human made landscape around them. Maybe this is about how we educate.

We train students to specialize and think in rigid disciplinary categories using distinct disciplinary languages, even despite much talk of interdisciplinarity.

What student in business is trained to meaningfully recognize and incorporate into future business projections the web of non-human and human life that is the foundation of any economy? On the other hand, what horticulture student is trained to think about the historical economic and political processes that have shaped the direction of the horticulture industry?

The point is, as we design and engage in a 21st c. education, we need to prepare our students for a multipolar, fluid world; we want them to at least recognize and appreciate that my pen is to the WEST of me, or at least that it is a possibility, while at the same time educate students to think systemically. Many will still not be able to identify the variety of plant species around them, but they might begin to recognize and value that the many different species play a critical role to their health, to the economy’s long term health and to the health of the planet.

Welcome to Policy Matters. In our journal, you will find articles from professionals, faculty and students concerning an array of policy issues. We believe that all policy, local or national, matters and deserves a conversation. For more information, or to submit an article for publication, please email us at

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