A French couple kissing.
A couple kiss in front of a wall engraved with the words "I love you" in 300 languages. Image by AP

English language brain claim is talking in tongues

Nik Dirga May 31, 2022
WHAT WAS CLAIMED

Speakers of "blunt" or simple languages - as opposed to English - have lower brainpower.

OUR VERDICT

False. There is no scientific evidence that some languages reduce brain function.

There is debate about whether English is the global lingua franca, but a Facebook video claims it also makes you smarter and other languages fail to strain the brain.

The assertion is made by anti-vaccine activist Riccardo Bosi, a former Australian special forces soldier and political aspirant.

However, linguistics and brain experts say there’s no merit to Bosi’s theory some languages are so simple they reduce brain capacity.

In the video, Bosi discusses the merits of certain languages: “The beauty of the English language is that it’s been so influenced by so many other languages that we have multiple words for many things.  ÔǪ There’s a subtlety there,” (video mark 46 min 47sec).

“There are some languages that are very blunt. And the net impact on the individual of that is literally the neural networks that they’ve created in their head because they’ve only got very blunt language, it reduces the horsepower of the brain.”

Experts told AAP FactCheck there’s no truth to such claims, with one describing them as a form of discrimination.

Jeanine Treffers-Daller is a professor of linguistics at the University of Reading and has written extensively on multilingualism.

“There is no basis to the idea that there are simple versus complex languages, so the claim made about the effect of language complexity on cognition cannot hold,” Prof Treffers-Daller said in an email.

“There are many different ways in which languages can be complex. Words can be rigid (as in English) or more free, as in Turkish. Whether one or the other is simple, is a matter of perspective. ÔǪ The lack of complexity in one area means there is complexity in another area.”

Morten H Christiansen, a professor of psychology at Cornell University whose research includes the evolution of language, says “it does not make any sense to claim that English is a ‘complex’ and ‘nuanced’ language compared to other languages”.

“English is one of the more simple languages compared to many other of the world’s languages, including those spoken by indigenous people,” Prof Christiansen said in an email.

“And there’s no scientific evidence that speaking languages other than English would reduce the functioning capacity of the brain.”

Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Australia, says there’s “no scientific basis for claiming that certain languages are more complex – let alone ‘more sophisticated’ – than others”.

“Claims that some languages are more complex than others aren’t made on linguistic but rather on political grounds, typically as a form of discrimination,” Prof Bornkessel-Schlesewsky told AAP FactCheck in an email.

The concept of language complexity is a source of conjecture and depends on what is being compared, such as grammar, lexicon, phonology and morphology.

The early 20th century Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, proposed language affected a person’s cognitive abilities. However, the theory has proven controversial in some studies. In one interpretation of the theory, the so-called “strong version“, the language you speak determines how you think and view the world.

“There is now a general consensus among linguists that this strong version of linguistic relativity is false,” Prof Bornkessel-Schlesewsky said.

In a 2013 paper, The Emergence of Complexity in Language: An Evolutionary Perspective, linguist Salikoko S Mufwene notes “all languages reflect their capacity to satisfy the communicative needs of those who shaped and use them”.

“It has been difficult to show that overall one language is more complex than another,” Prof Treffers-Daller said.

“There is a lot of evidence that language and cognition interact, but clearly one cannot map complexity in language onto cognition in such a simplistic way as the Facebook author does.”

She says there is cultural bias and it’s “kind of common for people to think that their own language is the most logical/the best language in the world”.

AAP FactCheck has previously debunked several of Bosi’s claims including inaccurate statements about COVID-19, vaccines, US President Joe Biden, and the war in Ukraine.

The Verdict

The claim that simple or “blunt” languages lower a person’s cognitive skills is false. Linguists and neurology experts told AAP FactCheck there is no evidence some languages use different levels of brainpower, describing the claims as a form of discrimination.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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