Can America’s Emphasis on Binary Thinking Restrict the Ability to Learn Multiple Languages?

Culture & Learning

Educators need to understand how many Americans exhibit a very binary mode of thinking; meaning they may learn by acquiring principles in contrast.

Americans seem to learn what a term means, for example, by what that said term is ‘not’. If a person is not ‘good’, than they must be ‘bad’, for example. Other instances of contrastive type ideas include: up/down, forward/backward, man/women, light/dark; and the list could go on and on.

Other people outside the U.S. may learn in parallel rather than in contrast. This is not to say that people of other languages do not contrast ideas, but a common factor among language learners of other nations manifests as a more pluralistic style of interpreting reality.

Helene Cixous was a popular French feminist author and cultural theorist around the 1970s. In her essay ‘Sorties’, in New French Feminisms, she basically talked about how ideas get organized in certain ways and how members of a culture consciousness relegate themselves according to certain rules, most of the time without even knowing it.

By having people interpret their reality in oppositions, like simple binaries, for example, she said this mode of learning is very restrictive. She characterizes this in a term she called ‘logocentrism.’. It means some people tend have language concepts organized in twos; she called this “coupling.” How would this concept of reality formulate a person’s thinking?

In Freedom and Culture, anthropologist Dorothy Lee talks about linear and non-linear reality. She first uses an idea about a baseball to show how different people may interpret a situation in dramatically alternate ways. She later delineates how these interpretations help or hinder human beings in their intellectual development. Lee first invites the reader of her story to imagine a situation where two people watch someone else throw a baseball. In her example, one is American, the other is a Greenland Eskimo.

Lee says that an American (she actually says someone from “my” culture, however), would view the act as a causal; a person threw the ball and it moved. She says the Greenland Eskimo would view the same situation very differently as the person who threw the ball merely actualized the ball’s ability to move. The person becomes part of a larger scheme in the Eskimo’s view.

Another example Lee uses to demonstrate concepts of non-linear thinking is to examine what “time,” may actually mean. Imagine you come from a culture that has no concept of the past. Again, how would this formulate your thinking?

People who come from cultures with a more incorporative perception, like those who have pluralistic religions, tend to learn in a more pluralistic fashion. This includes the way they learn other languages, too. Lee says that some people’s “codification of reality,” allows them access to certain modes of learning that other cultures cannot utilize.

However, if educators can realize other modes of understanding, they can better prepare students to communicate with others around the world.

Learn more about cultural and anthropological theory at the United Nations Lab for Culture Directory.