Aayesha Siddiqui, "How Western Psychology Needs To Rethink Depression", WBUR 4/2/2012, quoting Jerome Kagan in an interview with Meghna Chakrabarti, "Psychology Is In Crisis", 3/29/2012:
How the English language falls short: “Let’s take the field of personality. Right now we have terms like introvert, extrovert, shy, anxious. Notice those words are naked. They don’t say with whom you’re introverted, when you’re introverted, in what settings you’re introverted. In other languages — take Japanese for example. There’s no word for “leader” in Japanese. There’s only a word for leader of a corporation, leader of a radio station, leader of a platoon. Because they understand that a person who’s a good leader of a radio station might be a lousy leader of a platoon. And the same thing for extroversion, introversion, shyness. And that’s a problem with the English language. And the problem is that 80 percent of research on personality is done by Americans using the English language. The English language is a very bad language for talking about personality because it doesn’t tell you the context, the setting.”
A language really can't win at this game, as I noted in "No words, or too many", 1/30/2009:
The fact that languages differ somewhat in the generality of their semantic categories can be spun in several different ways — if your terminology is more specific than mine, perhaps this is because you're not yet advanced enough to see the crucial generalization; on the other hand, if it's more general, perhaps this is because you haven't yet learned to make the needed distinctions. This "heads I win, tails you lose" approach is featured in all its ironic glory by Herbert Spencer in The Principles of Sociology, 1893. On p. 354 we learn that
… in the languages of inferior races the advances in generalization and abstraction are so slight that, while there are words for particular kinds of trees, there is no word for tree, and that, as among the Damaras, while each reach of a river has its special title, there is none for the river as a whole, much less a word for river; or if, still better, we consider the fact that the Cherokees have thirteen verbs to express washing different parts of the body and different things, but no word for washing, dissociated from the part or thing washed; we shall see that social life must have passed through sundry stages, with their accompanying steps in linguistic progress, before the conception of a name became possible.
Amazingly, in the preceding paragraph Spencer makes the opposite complaint about the linguistic inadequacies of inferior races, namely that they are unable to see the world accurately because they have not yet learned to make fine enough distinctions:
"the colours green, black, and brown are habitually confounded in common Arabic parlance" … The Kamschadales have "but one term for the sun and moon" …
Prof. Kagan, of course, is not working the old primitive/civilized dimension, but rather the equally old east/west one. But his problem with the alleged over-generality and decontextualization of English personality-words can easily remedied by the use of modifiers, either on a nonce basis or in the creation of new terms of art ("shyness with respect to (members of one's parents generation / people from other countries / available members of the opposite sex / potential employers / people wearing formal dress / …). It's not the English language that "doesn’t tell you the context, the setting" — it's the person using the English language who makes that choice.
And, of course, I'm skeptical in advance of the assertion that Japanese words for personality characteristics carry with them a full specification of the psychologically-relevant contexts and settings. Perhaps some readers who are familiar with Japanese personality-words will comment.