Does the language we speak change the way we think?

Several studies have collected scientific data that backs up the theory that yes, the language we speak can, in fact, change the way we think. But how? Different perceptions of space, time, colors, and how we see an object are among some examples of Lera Boroditsky’s research.

Languages are way more than mere words to name objects or label things – they are the greatest gift of the human being. It is through languages that we express thoughts and feelings. We can exchange complex ideas just by making sounds or even through drawings. We can trigger emotions, put a thought in another person’s head, and have a complex exchange of arguments. Nowadays, more than 7 000 languages are spoken worldwide. That sounds like a lot, right? With such variety, it is impossible not to wonder if different languages impact the people who speak them.

This is a very old question. Does the language we speak change the way we think? Maybe even perceive the world? Does learning a new language shape your brain? If we are polyglots, do we act or think differently depending on which language we speak? For thousands of years, this was discussed but conclusions were never reached since there was no scientific data to back it up.

Lera Boroditsky is an associate professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California San Diego, and she is specialized in the relationships between mind, world, and language. Through research on labs at Stanford University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she achieved concrete data that back up the theory that yes, the language we speak changes the way we think.

One of her first examples is Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia. The locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, have a very specific view of space. Like many other Aboriginal groups, they don’t use words like “right” or “left” – instead, they use cardinal-direction terms like “north” or “west”. And no, this is not only to give directions, it’s for everything. They use sentences like “There’s an ant on your southeast arm” or “Move to the north northwest a little bit”. This means that the speakers of this language have to be oriented at all times; an ability is not that evolved in, for instance, English speakers. Even their greeting includes the direction you are going to – you have to keep track of your position in order to speak the language correctly.

Their different perception of space also influences how they perceive time. When asked to organize pictures that show some temporal progression, English speakers arranged the cards from left to right and Hebrew speakers from right to left (which also shows that the direction you write in a language plays a role). But what did the Kuuk Thaayorre do?

They arranged the pictures from right to left, left to right, toward the body or away from it. But it was not random; it had a pattern – from east to west. Depending on the direction they were seated, they would arrange the pictures differently regarding the position of their bodies, but it was always from east to west. So even though they weren’t told which direction they were facing, the Kuuk Thaayorre knew it and “used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time”.

We can now see how the idea of time can differ depending on the language you speak. Comparing to English speakers who see the time as a horizontal line, often using sentences like “the best is ahead of us” or “the worst is behind us”, Mandarin speakers talk about time vertically, using expressions like the next month is the “down month” or the last month was the “up month”.

Languages can also influence how we perceive colors. Boroditsky’s research compared Russian and English speakers by analyzing their ability to distinguish shades of blue. In Russian, there are two words for blue: light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). Since there is one word for the color in English (blue), the theory was that Russian speakers could distinguish more easily different shades. And the theory was proven correct: Russian speakers have the ability to differentiate the colors faster than English speakers.

Another thing that the research focused on was grammatical gender. In Romance languages like Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian, the nouns are either feminine or masculine. But what happens when the same word has different genders in different languages? Does that change anything at all? Boroditsky’s research says yes. When asked to describe the word “key” – masculine in German and feminine and Spanish – people’s answers were usually influenced by the gender of the word. German speakers were most likely to use words more related to masculinity like “hard”, “heavy” or “metal,” while Spanish speakers used more feminine words like “golden”, “little,” or “shiny”. This pattern repeats itself with a lot of other words. About “bridge” – feminine in German and masculine in Spanish – German speakers used more feminine words like “beautiful”, “elegant,” or “peaceful” while Spanish speakers used “big”, “dangerous,” or “strong”.

Some of the differences between perceptions due to genders in languages can even be seen in art. One of Boroditsky’s examples is how artists represent death. “It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language”. Since “death” is masculine in German and feminine in Russian, German painters were more likely to paint death as a man while Russian painters painted death as a woman.

With these few examples, Boroditsky showed how language could influence our thoughts about space, time, colors, and objects, but it can shape a lot more. “Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of the number, understand the material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses”. With all of this taken into consideration, we can positively say that the language we speak does change our thinking. These studies also open our eyes to how important languages are and how they are the greatest ability of human beings.

Rute Cardoso


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