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Cultural type affects individuals’ basic cognitive category

ZHANG JIJIA | 2022-03-17 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A rancher herds livestock to winter pastures as the temperature drops. Due to extended engagement with livestock, nomadic thinking patterns are infused with the animals’ characteristics. Photo: CFP

Do people who speak different languages make sense of the world in the same way? Does all of humanity share the same thought patterns? Can different language speakers truly understand each other? Generative linguistics and linguistic relativity have divided opinions in response to these questions. 
Generative linguists contend that language is simply an input/output system for thinking, so people speaking different languages have consistent views on core concepts, and humanity shares the same thinking pattern. On the contrary, linguistic relativity argues that language influences and even determines thought, so different language speakers view the world distinctly. 
As research deepens in the fields of psychological linguistics and cross-cultural psychology, evidence is growing in support of language relativity. 
Varying vocabularies across cultures
Humanity can be classified into the following cultures: hunter-gatherer, nomadic, farming, and industrial. Different cultures have disparate ecological circumstances and modes of production, thus generating diverse languages. 
Language is a reflection of cultural structure, or the world outlook of people living in a certain culture. Individuals foster their cognitive categories by mastering the language of their own culture. Cultural types, and the basic vocabulary of each related language, play a decisive role in shaping their primary cognitive category. 
Ding Shiqing, a professor of applied linguistics at Minzu University of China, elaborated on the nomadic cognitive category. The nomadic culture results from a mutual adaptation between nomadic people and the steppe. Nomadic languages record their perceptions of the world, embodying a “basic-level category.” 
According to Ding, nomadic people’s basic cognitive category has the following features: they pay particular attention to grassland creatures, and have created detailed categorization and naming systems for these animals; animal husbandry terms are at the core of their speech; and objects closely related to nomadic lifestyle are considered vehicles for a series of metaphors and symbols. 
The vocabulary of nomads is, above all else, rich. Words and phrases that mirror nomadic culture and life are absolutely predominant, far outnumbering vocabulary for farming, hunting, and other industries. Second, it is extensive, involving not only the material culture of animal husbandry, such as production techniques, livestock names, and daily life necessities, but also an institutional and spiritual culture. Third, because nomadic people often deal with livestock, many new expressions and meanings can be derived from related words and phrases used orally and in writing. In addition, the vocabulary represents the accumulation of nomads’ production and life experiences. 
To nomadic people, domestic animals are both the means of production and subsistence. The dual attributes of livestock lead to a special group of words or phrases—names of livestock—in nomadic languages. For example, Turkic and Mongolian vocabularies are dominated by horses, cattle, camels, and sheep. 
In nomadic languages, there are a large number of livestock names. In Kazak, livestock names account for approximately 60% of the lexis concerning animal husbandry. Moreover, semantic domains are plentiful. Livestock names can fall into such semantic categories as age, gender, color, shape, gait, and whether the animals are pregnant or castrated. 
Nomads are often known as “people on horseback.” The horse has great cultural significance. In nomadic languages, there are a broad spectrum of words and phrases related to the names, colors, shapes, and gait of horses, alongside unique and creative metaphors and symbols, which have strong linkage to themes in nomadic life. 
In the Mongolian language, many expressions have been coined on the basis of domestic animals’ physical features. Generally, bulky and clumsy objects are associated with cattle, such as “cattle gun” (niuqiang) meaning cannon; things which are tall yet agile are compared to horses, such as “horse spoon” (mashao, ladle); the tall and clumsy are related to camels, such as “camel bean” (tuodou, broad bean); and small and exquisite things are associated with lambs or little goats, such as “lamb tea” (yanggao cha, a refined tea).
This naming convention is common in the nomadic culture. Due to extended engagement with livestock, the shape, temper, function, and traits of the animals are infused in their thinking patterns. When meeting new objects or phenomena, nomadic people tend to seek out animal features and name the objects and phenomena after the most analogous livestock. Resultant words and phrases constitute the primary cognitive category for nomads, carrying salient features of the nomadic culture. 
In the language of farmers, agriculture-related objects or phenomena play a similarly fundamental role. There are abundant lexical resources with extensive agricultural influences. For example, the Dong ethnic group specializes in growing rice, so the names of many festivals are linked to rice cultivation, such as the Sowing Festival (bozhong jie) and the New Harvest Eating Festival (changxin jie). 
In Mandarin Chinese, words and phrases about farming occupy a large proportion of the lexicon, covering an array of farmers’ material and spiritual life. Relevant associations, metaphors, proverbs, and adages abound. 
The Han ethnic group believes in the Lord of Land (tudi ye). Yellow, the color they favor, is the color of land. They identify the homeland as a mother. Both land and mothers have the function of bearing life, forming a special metaphorical and associative relationship. 
As another example, “seed” (zhongzi) signifies offspring. Naughty children are admonished as “bad seeds” (naozhong), and the demise of a state is equated to “perishing seeds” (miezhong). Teachers are compared to “gardeners” (yuanding) while students are called “learning saplings” (xuemiao). Therefore, objects and terms pertinent to agriculture make up the primary cognitive category for farmers. 
Similarly, in modern terminology, industry-based expressions like “qualified, product, design, cost, raw materials, package, and procedures” form the basic category of cognition for an industrial culture. 
Significance of basic-level category
The first concepts mastered by a person often make up the “basic-level category of cognition.” On this basis, people grasp other concepts through association, comparison, and metaphor, to build a cognitive structure. Different basic categories will result in different cognitive structures. 
For example, in nomadic kinship terminology, there is no distinction between patriarchy and matriarchy. The nuclear family is paramount. This is because nomadic people often move from place to place in search of water and grass, leading to limited social contact among relatives. In contrast, farmers are inclined to live in compact communities, so their relatives are close. Frequent contact requires more detailed kinship terminology. 
Moreover, nomads don’t build houses. They reside in tents. Barren soil on the steppe makes it difficult for individuals to understand idioms like a “solid foundation” (jichu zhashi) or “deep roots and luxuriant leaves” (genshen yemao). Research shows that the range of conceptual structures and dimensions in terms of kinship, color, space, and time are inseparable from diversity in basic-level categories across ethnic groups. 
Basic cognitive categories are the basis for original conceptual structures of language speakers. Individuals’ knowledge is stored in the speakers’ mind in the form of conceptual networks. When learning new concepts, learners must associate them with existing concept nodes in their conceptual networks. The association can be subordinate, superordinate, or coordinate. Learners construct a new conceptual pattern through assimilation and integration. The primary cognition category becomes the cardinal guide for each person’s conceptual system, and the foundation of their complicated conceptual structure. In other words, they organize their conceptual systems around basic-level category concepts, which serve as the longitude and latitude.     
Given that basic cognition categories—and original conceptual structures—vary among people from different cultures, can people from different cultural backgrounds who speak different languages understand each other? The answer is: YES! However, it calls for an understanding of the other person’s basic cognitive categories. Only in this way can we see the world through another’s eyes, thereby achieving mutual understanding. Otherwise, language barriers will loom large in communication. 
For instance, a herder asks a man from the farming community, “Is the livestock at home safe and sound?” If the farmer replies, “I don’t raise livestock,” it is obviously inappropriate, because the herder is extending a greeting. If a man from the Han ethnic group says to a child from a nomadic area, “I know whose ‘seed’ this is the moment I see you,” the child will have no idea what is meant. However, if he says, “I know whose ‘lamb’ this is the moment I see you,” the child may immediately understand. 
It is of great theoretical significance and practical value to understand the basic-level categories of people from different cultures who speak different languages. Theoretically, we can clarify the relationships among language, culture, and human cognition, and in practice, we can provide guidance for cross-cultural communication. 
Also grasping students’ basic cognitive categories illuminates ethnic education. As American educational psychologist David Paul Ausubel said, “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor in influencing learning is what the learner already knows.” Ethnic education experts must understand students’ basic cognitive categories and guide them to digest and comprehend new knowledge by leveraging these categories in the teaching process. 
To this end, educators should first understand their students’ mother tongue and native culture; the ecology, modes of production, history and culture, and customs of the ethnic group they belong to; and the disparities across ethnic groups in these aspects. Attention should also be paid to the similarities and differences between the standard spoken and written Chinese language, which is based on a farming culture, and languages of ethnic groups that may be grounded in farming, nomadic, or hunter-gatherer cultures, and in their different basic cognitive categories. 
When students learn the standard spoken and written Chinese language, it is necessary to teach it alongside the according Han culture and concrete experiences to enable them to master new concepts through experiential learning, metaphor, and association, and connect the new concepts with basic-level categories. As such, students’ new and old knowledge can reinforce one another, efficiently creating a reasonable cognitive structure, to make learning the national language effective and inspire fruitful results in ethnic education. 
Zhang Jijia is a distinguished professor of linguistic psychology from Guangxi Normal University.