Alum Bart Kohnhorst ‘83 shared a fascinating NYT article on how language shapes the way we think (Does Your Language Shape How You Think? – NYTimes.com), and which, in a way, helps explain the reason why Thunderbird emphasizes language learning in the curriculum.
Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I ran some experiments testing a “lighter” version of Whorf’s hypothesis that language determines perceptions of reality. The results, which were later published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that small variation in syntax could influence the way we categorize a series of artificial computer-animated events.
While it is true that Whorf’s theory in its radical form “crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense”, and that no evidence exists that one language forbids its speakers to comprehend concepts and ideas of speakers of other languages, there is a mountain of evidence that language does bias thinking, that shapes the aspects of reality that are paid most attention to.
Since 1946 Thunderbird has emphasized language training as part of its formula to educate globally minded leaders. The motivation however is not just to add another valuable skill to a future manager’s toolkit–honestly, it is extremely difficult to predict what language will be most useful throughout one’s career–but to help strengthen the cognitive flexibility that is inherent to a global mindset.
Learning a second language is one of the most effective ways to force our mind to look at the world from multiple angles, to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously, to be open to the possibility that others may see one situation differently. This turns out to be a core competence of global leadership.