The Language Matrix

When you ride the subways in Tokyo, it might strike you that the signs and the books passengers are reading require special language skills. The signs are sometimes written in Kanji, sometimes in Katakana (the two Japanese writing systems), and sometimes in English:

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Sometimes they seem to mix Kanji (the one that looks like Chinese) and Katakana in the same message:

とは? 使い方や敬語表現

Also, the books are typically read in vertical lines, top to bottom, right to left, but the newspapers seem a fairly even mix of horizontal and vertical text passages.

I know little of Japanese languages and culture, but let my thoughts run wild for a minute. Learning from infancy to be equally comfortable in all these language systems – vertical readings, top to bottom, right to left; horizontal readings, left to right; Kanji and Katakana, separately and mixed; and English text and Western numerals as well – this must affect how your brain gets wired. It’s like language is a layered matrix with all these synchronized modes operating (or rapidly engaging and disengaging in the brain) at the same time.

Here’s a hypothesis. As I said, I’m a novice at Japanese culture, so my hypothesis may have some empirical support, may have no empirical support, or may, to the legions of easily mortified souls in today’s debauched intellectual climate, merely prove me an unregenerate racist. But it seems that if you learn language from the start as this kind of many-tiered system, your brain wiring will be really good at “matrix thinking” – math, manifold arrays of logic, etc. Rigorous might be the right word. A people raised in this kind of multi-dimensional language field should, by my hypothesis, be good at math, programming languages, etc. (not universally, but on average). When it comes to more chaotic, creative, rule-breaking, outside the box thinking – people in the US (in the aggregate) might have an edge. To wit, wiring your brain via language requires less rigor in the US, which means you’re wired less for rigor and more for open-ended thinking – more mistakes and more creative tangents.

Of course, none of this is meant to indicate universal traits but just a tendency on average to lean a little bit this way or that in your signature strengths as a culture. (Western Europe, in my experience, would be in between the Japanese and US poles, but maybe closer to the US side. I am not a psycholinguist. I base this on the purely anecdotal evidence of three years’ residence in Europe, 12 countries hitchhiked in Europe, and the half-baked ideas flowing through my brain as I sit here in a quiet neighborhood in Tokyo.)

If you think this is bad, you’ll hate my psycholinguistic foray into Mexican vs German and English language students.

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