January 8, 2014, by Yvonne Teoh

Lost in Translation

Early research has found that our cultural upbringing can have an impact on how we categorise information.  A study by Chui (1972) asked western and Chinese children what goes with an image of a cow, which is a better fit, chicken or grass?  The results showed that Chinese children were more likely to pair the cow with the grass, whereas western children paired the cow with the chicken.  So for western children, they paired them because they both belonged to the same category (animal), not based on the idea that a cow eats grass.  So my interest in why we have difficulty in understanding what another person means is something that has being fascinating other people for a long time.

Photo Credit: Chui (1972)

Photo Credit: Chui (1972)

For those of you who aren’t already aware, I’m not Malaysian and before I moved here I had never spent any time in Asia.  I do love living here as it’s so different from living in the U.K.  However, there are times when things are just completely lost in translation for me.  It took me ages to get used to the idea of referring to a mobile phone as a handphone.  And I’m hoping now that I have been living for awhile, people don’t mind when I say “lah” or “boleh”.


I find it fascinating that we use different terms to refer to the exact same object.  I had great fun teaching one of our former colleagues from America (Dr Matt Johnson) on the correct way to call things.  No, the word you are looking for is bin, not a trash can!  We also had fun comparing different slang phrases that Americans and British people use.

To most people, when they ask for a soft copy of a file, they mean an electronic version.  However, I think a soft copy refers to a paper version, whereas a hard copy is the electronic version.  I still can’t get my head around it and I have to ask each time otherwise I’m so blur.  I also have the habit of referring to my postgraduate students as my minions as a joke.  I started doing this before the Despicable Me movies came out, but if it makes people think of funny cartoon character, I’m okay with that.

Dr Jess Price,
(Assistant Professor, School of Psychology, UNMC)

Posted in cognitive psychologylanguageLecturerpsychobabblepsychologyresearchunmc