Beyond spoken language, human history has imparted a myriad of ways by which we have used to express ourselves, from the El Castillo stone cave paintings (39,000 B.C.) which illustrate abstract symbols and hand outlines on rock faces to systematic writing systems, such as the alphabet and logography. It took a long time for systematic writing systems to emerge in human history, compared to other inventions that have appeared throughout the course of civilization. Written language traces back only 5,000 years or so, while other inventionsFootnote 1 materialized well over 10,000 years ago. It may be because we are not born to read. Because the brain is not biologically hard-wired for reading, unlike the spoken language, our brains need to reconnect and restructure neuronal pathways and networks by recycling the existing circuitry in the brain (Dehaene, 2009). Once it was invented, writing, as a linguistic and cultural tool, has come to the forefront of human communication and has become an integral part of our lives. Especially in the digital epoch, reading is no longer a passive conduit for the transmission of information to the extent that it has become an active force in creating new social interactions and realities within the new channels of communication. In these days, we are at times forced to participate in reading and writing through text messages, emails, or group chats, which have begun to replace face-to-face communication. These new channels that were unprecedented in the pre-mobile era have become a quintessential vehicle of interactions. What is important is that whatever principal medium with which we communicate everyday has a subliminal impact on our brains and can shape the way we view the world. Moreover, the habitual use of the medium plays a crucial role in determining which neuronal pathways and networks of the brain are to be recycled and reinforced to accommodate the demand of the continuous task of reading (Dehaene, 2009; Wolf, 2007).

This book has reviewed, integrated, and synthesized anecdotal and empirical evidence to interpret written language or script as the covert engine or agent that drives our perception and cognition. In order to ground the leitmotif of script relativity in theories and empirical evidence, I have relied on a plethora of books and articles in linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and neurosciences. In a nutshell, I have put the theoretical discussion of the script relativity hypothesis on a new footing to augment the linguistic relativity hypothesis. By showing how the linguistic relativity hypothesis was inadequately dismissed by a school of thought (e.g., nativists) in the 1960s through the 1980s and by offering new interpretations and findings, especially from second language studies, I have provided a foundation for the new theory of script relativity. I have grounded my argument in the theories of the universal grammar of reading (Perfetti, 2003) and the system accommodation hypothesis (Perfetti & Liu, 2005), which recognize linguistic universality and specificity involved in reading and the interaction between script and word recognition. In short, biological unity (i.e., linguistic universality) and scriptal diversity (i.e., script specificity) co-play a role in reading processes. However, script effects go above and beyond the absorptions of linguistic influences on our thinking and thought patterns.

1 Language as a Cultural Tool

Language is the medium through which we express ourselves and perceive the world. Language is also a system for processing information because, without language, we would have difficulties organizing information and our thoughts. Although the function of language is by and large invariant across languages, every culture has its own language. Even English has been indigenized and has taken on colorations according to the locality in which it is spoken around the world, such as British English, American English, Indian English, and Nigerian Pidgin English (Diamond, 1999). These related but distinct “Englishes” have been incorporated into their respective cultures to the degree that they can be unintelligible to speakers of other “Englishes” in terms of vocabulary, idioms, collocations, and pronunciation. Hence, it seems that having different cultures means having different languages or vice versa.

Attempts to identify the source of cultural differences have been made from various perspectives for a better understanding of people with various backgrounds and cultures. Diamond (1999) explains in Guns, Germs, and Steel why the rise and manifestations of human civilizations have emerged differently on the major continents across the globe over the past 13,000 years. He attributes the differences found in the trajectories, modes, and patterns of civilizations around the world to continental, geographic, and environmental factors rather than to human biology. Diamond’s explanation is similar to Nisbett’s (2003) observations and claims, which find the variations between the East and the West in geographical and cultural dissimilarities. In order to understand how and why Easterners and Westerners think differently, Nisbett and his colleagues have conducted a series of experiments in social psychology, as reviewed in Chapter 6.

The discussions of divergences between the East and the West have reverberated through empirical evidence advanced by the studies of social psychology and applied linguistics. Of interest is a systemic analysis of how ideological undercurrents are formed and how intrinsic characteristics (e.g., philosophy, belief systems, attention, and the mind) coalesce with the extrinsic stimulus (e.g., written language or script we read in) for compatibility or how the extrinsic stimulus defines the intrinsic characteristics for covert causality. This line of analysis helps us understand the way we pay attention and solve problems, and further understand the underlying construct that is responsible for the differences in aspects observed between the East and the West. Although universal characteristics exist among cultures, Nisbett (2003) observes that Westerners tend to categorize things around them, whereas Easterners look for relationships among items surrounding them. East Asians tend to demonstrate a holistic perceptual pattern by paying more attention to the context and interactions between the foreground and background. In contrast, Westerners are more likely to pay attention to focal objects or main characters rather than backgrounds in a context-independent and analytic way (see Chapter 6 for details).

2 Scripts: The Hidden Drive of Cognition and Culture

Although there are multiple ways to look at script effects, the effect can be viewed as (1) an extension of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, (2) the result of accommodated brain networks, and (3) the underpinnings of our cognition, everyday problem-solving strategies, and overall culture. First, as the extension of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, Chapter 3 summarizes how the linguistic relativity hypothesis was misinterpreted about three to five decades ago without sufficient empirical evidence for the dismissal. Research on color, motion, number, time, object, and nonlinguistic representations offers substantial support for the linguistic relativity hypothesis, which provides a valid rationale for the resurrection of the hypothesis. It is difficult to prove that the language we speak does not affect our cognition and the perception of the world. The claim that our thinking influences language is a moot point, however (see Chapter 1 for further information). This book goes beyond the linguistic relativity hypothesis to highlight the impact of the script being read. Given that we rely on largely arbitrary symbols to extract meaning, the process of reading requires inner workings of the brain. This is directly related to the second point, the brain circuitry. As Dehaene (2009) proposes the neuronal recycling hypothesis, literacy experience reshapes the brain circuits and pathways to accommodate the constraints of the script being read (Kim & Wang, 2018; Perfetti & Liu, 2005; Shlain, 1998; Wolf, 2007). Last, the East and the West in general reveal divergent cultures. The differences between the two cultures have been manifested in ancient architecture, religion, and everyday practices, which are the expressions of cultural members’ minds, cognition, and problem-solving strategies. Chapter 6 summarizes the pivotal cultural characteristics in the East and the West based on anecdotal and empirical evidence.

Although Nisbett (2003) and Diamond (1999) have established solid grounds for their all-encompassing theses on the differences between the East and the West and among the different continents on the globe, respectively, their arguments cannot explain the microscopic aspects of the brain’s networks, a language group’s collective mind and cognition, problem-solving strategies, and culture that are in variation across users of different languages. Of importance is the fact that China, Korea, and Japan share geographical proximity and culture to a great extent, but the people of the three countries have different spoken languages and scripts (and therefore different ways of thinking). This suggests that there is something beyond Diamond’s (1999) and Nisbett’s (2003) claims that geography and environmental factors are the defining cause of the variations. From the viewpoint of script relativity, it is the script being read that underpins the differences found among these three groups of people. Spoken language is biological, while written language is not and needs to be explicitly learned. Hence, our conscious effort to combine graphs to form syllables or words (i.e., reading alphabetic scripts) or to make sense of whole characters by extracting meaning out of them (i.e., reading logographic or morphosyllabic Chinese characters) is likely to shape the processes of information processing. It is also written language that restructures and rewires the brain to accommodate the writing system, although our bodies remain the same (Dehaene, 2009; Shlain, 1998; Wolf, 2007).

These interactions are summarized in Figure 12.1. Language and script designate input, while cognition, problem-solving strategies, and culture represent output. Script effects can be greater than spoken-language effects because reading is an effortful endeavor, while spoken language is acquired naturally with time, exposure, and interaction. To address this notion, script is distinguished with a bolder thread than oral language. The brain is the machine that processes the input to yield the output. Based on the nature of a script as well as the brain’s workings to accommodate the script’s constraints, the outcomes of cognition, problem-solving strategies that we use, and the overall resulting culture of the scripts’ respective readers would be different.

Figure 12.1.
figure 1

A Causal Effect of the Script on Cognition, Problem-Solving, and Culture

3 Conversion or Diversion of Cultures?

More than two decades ago, Huntington (1996) asserted that “[i]n this new world the most pervasive, important, and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities” (p. 28). This might be true in international relations and world politics and in some aspects of civilizations. A civilization is “the broadest cultural entity … the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species” (Huntington, 1996, p. 43). Since a civilization comprises a wide range of entities, including language, history, religion, customs, and institutions, the diverse facets of a civilization may take different trajectories and patterns among different cultural groups.

Through recent history, the West or the Western ideas has/have dominated the course of all civilizations as a universal civilization in which Western cultural entities have been accepted as “common” values, beliefs, orientations, and practices (Huntington, 1996). This resulted in cultural hegemony and cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism refers to the maintenance of cultural inequity or dependent relationships between a more politically or economically dominant group and a less powerful group in asserting supremacy over another group. It often marginalizes less powerful groups’ cultural values, beliefs, customs, and standards (Huntington, 1996). The cultural hegemony of more economically powerful countries has been exercised in the context of constructing theories of a transnational power structure. Huntington (1996) predicted that differences among nations would continue to grow with the “clash of civilizations,” which would escalate a continued divergence. This would also yield variabilities in individuals’ perceptual patterns, reasoning styles, and systems of thought among different cultures.

As such, Huntington (1996) predicted that the societal differences would become wider than before (i.e., the world has already diversified into eight groups in the course of civilization based on religion beyond previously two polar opposites), because divergent cultural paths, rather than economic or political matters, would intensify future international conflicts. Despite the truths in this theory, Eastern and Western cultures seem to get more assimilated to each other by overcoming cultural myopia and ethnocentrism. Peng, Nisbett, and Wong (1997) found that Chinese students showed higher scores on Western values, such as valuing equality, imaginativeness, independence, broad-mindedness, and a varied life, than did American students. Similarly, American students reported higher values on being self-disciplined and loyal, having respect for tradition, and honoring parents and elders more than did Chinese students.

Pubic education in the East has a general tendency to implement an American curriculum in their own educational systems. Especially with the English language integrated into the national curriculum of compulsory elementary education in Asia, American instructional methods are predominately adopted in Asian educational curriclua. Another reason for the Americanized curriculum is that key policymakers in Asia obtained their terminal degrees (Ph.D. or EdD) from American institutions and apply what they have learned in the U.S. to their Eastern educational systems.

However, blending social systems and values in the East and West may merely be a trend. Consider the Westernization of Asian business environments and the gradually increasing number of Christians in China in recent years—aside from the already high number of Christians in Korea, as mentioned in the Prologue. The reverse phenomenon has also been observed in recent times. We are witnessing an increased interest in the study of Buddhism in America, an upward trend of Yoga practice in Western countries, and an adoption of holistic medicine including herbal medicine and acupuncture in Western medical practice.

Relatedly, a literacy-related example is also found in China. Although a direct connection has not been identified, the new adoption of a supplementary writing system, Pinyin, might have contributed to improved literacy rates in China. When the communists took over the People’s Republic of China in Mainland China in 1949, the literacy rate in China was below 20%. Using logography, it was easier for Chinese authority to control the literacy rate and maintain the restriction of information because it takes much longer to learn to read than the alphabet (Goody & Watt, 1963; Logan, 2004; Wolf, 2007). China’s literacy rate has rapidly increased in recent decades. By 1990, the literacy rate rose to 78% with a gender difference of 19% (87% for men and 68% for women). According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in 2010, the literacy rate was reported as 95.5% with only 5% difference in gender (98% for men and 93 for women). Among China’s youth (ages 15 to 24), the literacy rate is almost 100% with no gender gap (99.7% for young men and 99.6% for young women). Although it can be argued that the character simplification in Mainland China was a contributing factor to the literacy surge, it is not completely convincing given that Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan still use traditional Chinese characters but report high literacy rates. If there is a truth to Dehaene’s (2009) claim of the mixed-script advantage, the use of Pinyin may be the catalyst for the dramatic change in the literacy rate exhibited in China from 1949 to 2010, besides the political and economical changes in recent decades. Dehaene (2009) asserts that “[a] mixed system using fragments of both sound and meaning appears to be the best solution” (p. 189) in consideration of the crossroads among multiple cognitive constraints as to “the way our memory is structured, how language is organized, and the availability of certain brain connections” (p. 189). He continues to note that “[t]he mixed writing system … has the vast advantage of being particularly well suited to the connectivity of the letterbox area” (p. 189).

Users of bi-scripts utilize customized dual keyboards which can switch back and forth between two scripts with a single stroke of the keyboard. Another example is the use of fully convertible functionality from Pinyin to Chinese characters. In this case, Pinyin is typed and the program displays a selection of characters that have the same sound so that users can choose the appropriate one. This method, however, may be a little cumbersome, and hence the next development may be a voice-recognition protocol, such as the Media Resource Control Protocol—a communication protocol used to provide speech recognition and speech synthesis—to eliminate the extra step of switching. Although empirical evidence is unavailable as of today, it is within reason to prognosticate that the swift judgment and instantaneous selection would promote the user’s flexibility and efficiency in problem-solving.

4 Toward the State of Complementarity and Harmony

In an attempt to address most of the points discussed in this book, Figure 12.2 summarizes ever-evolving script effects as well as what we read, how we read, and why we read in this digital era. With respect to what we read, when the writing system was invented, we predominantly used a single script. As needs arise, the uni-script use has evolved to using bi-scripts or multi-scripts. The Japanese were reportedly the first society to have used both Kanji and Kana systems post A.D. 800 or so. The Chinese adopted Pinyin in 1958 with several revisions since then. More recently, Hindi-English bilinguals use Romanagari in addition to Devanagari (the official script that represents the Hindi language). The Greeks started using Greeklish as a way of using the Roman alphabet to write Greek. There is also Aralish that is used to supplement Arabic, as well as Romaji that have been used by the Japanese to represent the Roman alphabet. In addition to the increased usage of bi/multi-scripts, text has become even more enhanced in the advent of the digital epoch. Digital text of today makes use of more images and symbols than traditional text, engaging both hemispheres of the brain. These left and right brain regions, believed to be specialized for reading and image processing, respectively, are simultaneously recruited when reading digital text.

Figure 12.2.
figure 2

The Interaction among What, How, and Why We Read and Script Effects

The brain’s neuroplasticity accommodates the constraints that scripts put on our neural pathways while adapting to the medium through which we read. In addition to the plasticity conducive to what we read (i.e., the script and the medium), the quality of reading seems to affect the malleability of the brain. Specifically, Wolf (2018) argues “[t]he quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, [but] it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species.” (p. 2).

Regarding how we read, technological advances have provided another platform of reading—on-screen reading. As we use electronic devices more than ever before, on-screen reading has dramatically increased. The presence of the digital text defines how we read in terms of the medium and the manner of reading. We have recognized a tendency to scan on-screen text in an F-shaped manner in lieu of reading the text in entirety. Aside from less attention given to digital text, this skimming manner itself may result in the reduced quality of reading on screen, as Wolf (2018) points out.

As for why we read, technological advances have also changed the purpose of our reading. In the traditional notion, we read text for information gathering, entertainment, and related utility. Traditional reading takes place independently, and readers have control over their reading. However, in the digital era, we are at times forced into reading on screen. When the other party sends emails or text messages rather than phone calls or in-person meetings, we are bound to engage in on-screen reading and writing. Today, the purpose of reading and writing has not only merged but is now more geared toward interactive communication than traditional purposes.

McLuhan’s (1964) dictum “the medium is the message” encompasses all these aspects of reading because the medium is closely tied not only to the content of information, but also to the channel for message transmission as well as our intentions and choices for reading and communication. McLuhan (1964) continued to argue that the medium would shape and control “the scale and form of human association and action” upon message transmission (p. 9). If this is true, Hemingway’s shortest “short story” that he has ever written, including only six words, would have different effects on paper and on screen. The shortest story is as follows:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn. Footnote 2

When this is read in a traditional medium, on paper, this six-word “short story” would invoke readers’ imagery and imagination as to why the shoes were never worn. The image of a lonely pair of baby shoes captures the reader’s multiple layers of emotions based on their background knowledge, inference of a loss, suppressed feelings, and prayer-like wishes. However, it is unsure whether or not reading this story on screen would yield the same effect as reading on paper.

To sum up, with the changes to what, how, and why we read, there is a unifying trend revolving us into a more integrated world. The implication of this trend lies in the understanding of the East and the West as well as its relation to the thesis of this book. Neuroimaging studies show that brain networks and circuits are different in reading Chinese characters and English as a result of accommodating the linguistic needs of the given writing system. With the use of biscriptal scripts and digital text, the differences in reading between Chinese and English are expected to be diminished, and, in turn, the differences in cognition and thought are also to be diminished.

Two decades ago, Shlain (1998) predicted balance that would come into human behavior, technology, and communication with his optimism for the future of mankind as follows:

The computer and the Internet will once again reconfigure the brains of those that use them. Typing is a two-handed activity that requires input from both sides of the brain. Writing requires only the dominant hand. The use of a mouse … necessitates the activation of right-hemispheric visual-spatial skills. The World Wide Web and the Internet are not linear, they are holistic. (Shlain, 1998, A Conversation, p. 8).

These complementary modes of understanding reality and communicating amongst one another are analogous to the integration, balance, and symmetry of yin and yang. The yin and yang indicate that one side without the other is incomplete. They form a unified completeness only when they are together, which is stronger than either half or both halves combined. This is consistent with the way Shlain finds the integration and harmony in his profession (surgeon), as shown in the epigraph. This also echoes what Shlain mentioned: “The human community should strive for a state of complementarity and harmony” (p. 431).

5 Limitations of This Book and Recommendations

In closing, I should make note of the (possible) limitations of this book. First, as I noted in Chapter 1, I have used representative concepts and terms. By East Asians, I mean Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people. By Americans, I mean European-heritage Americans. The East refers to Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans in light of their languages and cultures because China exerted its influence on all Asian regions in history and because Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are all East Asians but have different languages and scripts, which provides a unique discussion point. The West refers to European Americans in relation to their language and culture, as the modern U.S. is a European-molded society (Diamond, 1999). Some may find this representation overly simplified. As I mentioned elsewhere, however, I chose the binary contrast because the Chinese writing system is rich enough to discuss within and between scripts and, at the same time, the three East-Asian scripts have enough variations to differentiate among themselves. This has served its purpose well to make my argument in this book. Another reason why I do not cover other scripts, such as South-Asian alphasyllabaries, Arabic, and Hebrew, is that I am not qualified to deal with those languages and scripts in a scientific way. It is my hope that the merit of this book outweighs the risk of (potential) over-simplification.

Second, using script relativity as an all-encompassing thesis may also be considered an over-simplification by some scholars, especially given the early (unjust) dismissal of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. In comparison to the explanations of geographical and environmental factors by Diamond (1999) and Nisbett (2003), script relativity may gain more competitive plausibility in explaining the covert script influences on our cognition and our mind.

Third, although this is not a limitation but a stance, some scholars may criticize my relativistic view, although I have tried to suspend my own cultural bias while providing circumstantial or anecdotal evidence. I acknowledge that my viewpoint is based on epistemology rather than ontology. At the same time, I have taken the emic view of my insider account as a Korean native as well as etic view of an outsider or observer account as a psycholinguistic researcher to provide a fuller, richer, and deeper description of script relativity.

Because I personally do not see the above as halting limitations, I believe that this line of inquiry and dialogue needs to continue. Not only has the linguistic relativity hypothesis been revisited and reinterpreted by enlightened psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists, but empirical research also picks up for the resurrection of the hypothesis especially in second language studies. The same applies to script relativity.

Since I have left out alphasyllabaries of South Asia and abjads of Arabic and Hebrew from this book, the discussion of script relativity needs to be broadened and intensified by other researchers who know the languages and scripts well. Notably, the genesis of my claim, linguistic relativity, has taken several decades to gain fair treatment and interpretation with a vast amount of research. It is now the time to think about and test script relativity as an extension. My thesis sets the stage for studies for other languages, regions, and groups of people.

As I briefly indicated in earlier chapters, both the new trend of digital text and the increasing use of bi-scripts and multi-scripts within a culture make testing script relativity difficult. In addition, testing illiterate people in comparison to literate counterparts is a useful way to address script relativity. However, the growing number of literacy rates in the world will keep us from teasing apart script influences on thinking in research. Another inherent challenge has to do with the difficulty of separating cognition from reading or reading from cognition because reading itself is a multifaceted cognitive activity. Nevertheless, the script relativity hypothesis meets the requisite for a theory, which includes generalizability, testability, falsifiability, predictability, and the principle of parsimony. My attempt ends here by providing a new footing for scientific dialogue that goes beyond linguistic relativity. The fate of script relativity depends on the reader’s judgment of competitive plausibility among many possible explanations of the given phenomenon.