Language, Meaning, and Mental Representation

When I started working after my trip to Paris yesterday, I made a very intriguing experience. Listening to a dialogue between two people at the institute, it took me at least three minutes to identify that these people were talking German and that I should have understood them from the first second I listened. The same thing happened to me again later on that day. To test if there are other “handicaps”, I chose to solve a sudoku, as mathematical challenges shouldn’t be too closely related to semantic and grammatical ones. I am really addicted to Sudoku and usually can solve them quite quick, but this day I wasn’t able to solve at least an easier one.

As I am not professional psychologist I could have wondered if I was going crazy. No, not really, I suppose, but this led me to some reflections on language, mental representation and meaning.  To me it seems obvious that this incident is related with the fact that I was talking mostly English and French the last week and therefore was tuned in in a really different cognitive framework or script on how to associate meaning with the sounds and words I was hearing, as both are not my mother tongues. Not a really new insight, this can mean that the mental representation of meaning is a) closely connected to language; b) seems to be influenced by different organizational structures of different languages; c ) is interdependent with logico-mathematic thinking.

Linking these rather private experiences ant their implications with theories of social constructivism/ constructionism (e.g. Berger/Luckmann for sociology or Kenneth Gergen for sociopsychology), this underlines the relativity and fuzziness of social experience and research.If I cannot rely on my own perception and attribution of meaning top social phenomena over and across different situations and/or languages, how can I capture reality adequately? If mathematical thinking is closely linked with language systems, how can I produce reliable results from quantitave research and interpret the adequately?

Another problem is the limitation of topics and actors within not only scientific discourses.  As for example Michel Foucault shows, the order of the discourse usually  is strict and harsh in separating legitimate contributions and invisibilizing and delegitimizing non-valid ones. In connection with the order of the respective discourse, the highly encultured and subjective forms of perception (cognition and processing) and expression (arts and languages) construct social constraints of and within language, meaning and mental representation.  These “power/knowledge-blocks” (Foucault) become one foundation to invent and optimize culturally, historically, economically and politically embossed techniques of signification, domination and the self.

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