Jumps on ice, in our thinking and in language

The other week I visited my grandparents in Prague, the place where I was born. There was a big party: my grandmother had received a very important medal of honour for her life’s work as a doctor. At the same time the World Figure Skating Championships were being held in Shanghai. My grandmother, who is a huge fan of figure skating, spent her mornings in front of the TV watching the various stages of the championships. One morning I sat there with her and wondered why. Why don’t I enjoy watching figure skating as much as she does?

One aspect that I think prevents me from enjoying figure skating is the commentator. The thing is, I don’t understand what they are saying. The skater jumps and the commentator says:“Double Salchow.” Or:“Triple axel.” Or sometimes even:“Quadruple toe loop.” I know these words as I have heard them many times before – therefore they are part of my language. But I don’t actually know what they mean. To me they mean pretty much the same thing, i.e. some kind of a jump, where the skater spins very rapidly in the air and then lands on one foot. I only understand the first parts of these words (double, triple and quadruple) and have naturally come to the conclusion that the higher the number the more difficult the jump. But for me, Salchows, axels and toe loops are shrouded in mystery. I know the words, but I do not know what the commentator is referring to with these words.

This got me thinking more generally about the significance of linguistic concepts regarding the way in which we analyse the world around us. So figure skating got me thinking about my own area of research! In my project I study the status of linguistic categories in our thinking and particularly their effect on how we perceive and remember what we have seen. I study this with cognitive tests carried out on test subjects in a psychological laboratory. The test subjects represent three different language groups: Finnish, Swedish and Czech. The purpose is to find out whether the speakers of these languages answer the tests in an identical way or whether there are differences which can be explained by the various manifestations of grammatical categories (grammatical gender, for example) in the languages in question.

The thing that draws me to this subject is that it is relevant to so many areas of life. Even figure skating. Even though I will not be studying the experiences of figure skating viewers in my project, many of the research questions in my project could, in principle, also be adapted to this purpose: Does my viewing experience differ from the commentator’s viewing experience because we use different words to describe a jump? If I were to learn the meanings of the figure skating terms would this automatically supersede my current primitive way of perceiving figure skating jumps? Would the fact that the grammatical gender of the Czech equivalent of the word toe loop is masculine while in Finnish it has no gender, for example, affect my viewing experience? If I were to learn all the terms used by the experts would I start to enjoy figure skating more?

I asked my grandmother whether she knows the names of all the different jumps. She said:“Personally, the figure skating jumps are not that important for me. I like to watch the graceful movements.” It was an excellent reply. It made me realise that I had, maybe slightly without reason, assumed that understanding the terms had a positive effect, in general, on the viewing experience. However, in the same way, learning the meanings of these new terms could also spoil my aesthetic experience. Perhaps understanding these terms would force me to watch figure skating mainly on the basis of individual technical elements, which would take my attention away from the overall experience. Perhaps my current level of enjoyment is the highest that I can achieve when watching figure skating.

My research is not likely to provide an answer to this particular question, but that is not the purpose either. It is just nice to think about such associations that are linked to my research.

I will now take back what I said about not enjoying figure skating. Because I enjoy thinking about the relationship between language and the mind, figure skating did, somehow bring me enjoyment in this way.


Tomas Lehecka

PhD. Tomas Lehecka received a grant from Kone Foundation in autumn 2014 for his project The Effects of Grammatical Categories on Cognition: Are All Allomorphs Cognitively Equal? (Kieliopillisten kategorioiden vaikutus ajatteluun: Ovatko kaikki allomorfit kognitiivisesti samanarvoisia?)