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This is how we cognize

Human cognition is a regular phrase in our household because Mike is a cultural anthropologist who studies human cognition for work (and fun, what?). Living in China we had umpteen discussions about cultural differences and how humans makes sense of the world and how Eastern vs. Western ways of cognition were different. We also happened to fall in love with Chinese culture, and strove to understand the new ways of thinking in which we were steeped, and that continues today even though we are far away.

But distinct from being some kind of mental game that makes us pat ourselves on the back for how culturally sensitive, open, and adapted we are (we are not, we were frustrated and clueless more times than we were at ease and accepting), I have found that cultural literacy is not only:


A. a real thing, not some new-fangled modern idea to irritate those who don't believe in its importance

B. Important and relevant to so many little things we might overlook without that literacy

I think the best way I can demonstrate my assertion is with a simple, but powerful example.


One thing Mike brought to my attention is that time is cognized differently than in Western culture. What this means is that when someone in the English-speaking world says future, we also refer to that as forward or in front; past, as backward or behindIn Chinese language the word/character for in front is also part of the word/character for the past. Similarly the word/character for in back, is used in words to indicate the future

This is interesting and all but, so what? 

So, Milan really enjoys pop music, and there are three songs he has recently asked me to buy and then we listen to them on repeat for days at a time. (I don't mind this at all.) The other day he asked, "Can we listen to my last favorite song?" I said sure, and put on the third song he liked. He indicated I turned on the wrong song, and eventually I understood he was referring to what I would have called his "first" favorite song. So instead of correcting him right away that he was "wrong", I was able to put what I would likely have thought of as confusion and wrongness because he's only 4 of course, had I not been exposed to another culture's cognition. My son wasn't necessarily wrong, he was cognizing in a different way. It is actually perfectly reasonable to think of his first favorite song as his last. Because if he made a list of favorite songs, and bumped them down as each new one appeared, the first would have been last.

1. 3rd favorite song
2. 2nd favorite song
3. 1st favorite song

What I did instead was drawn attention to how we both thought differently about that order, why the confusion arose, and how neither of us was necessarily wrong. I feel fully confident my son will learn that in English, when we say last we mean "most recent". However I also feel fully confident that my son will learn that maybe other people will have different ways of expressing things and he can remain open to those possibilities because I didn't correct him immediately or make him "wrong" when we had a difference between us.





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