Does the Language You Speak Influence How You Think?

Love is conveyed with different words in different languages — so isn't it conceivable that we also think about love in different ways?. [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Suppose a friend said to you in English, "I'm visiting my uncle." From this sentence alone there's little you can glean about this uncle.

However, if you and your friend spoke Korean and she told you she was visiting her uncle, you'd know several things about him based on what word for "uncle" she used.

Let's say she informed you she was visiting samchon. This word alone would inform you that her uncle is her father's unmarried younger brother.

In Korean, as in Chinese, the speaker has no choice but to encode this kind of information into the sentence. The languages require speakers to think about their family relationships when speaking of them.

Linguistic Relativity

This is an example of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the language we speak shapes how we view the world.

When Benjamin Lee Whorf presented his idea in a science magazine in 1940, he argued that our mother tongue prevents us from understanding concepts outside our language.

Whorf's ideas were later rejected based on his claims that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers won't understand that concept. Our very ability to learn proves this to be false.

For example, unlike German, the English language doesn't have word meaning "the feeling of being alone in the woods," but we can still grasp the concept of waldeinsamkeit.

However, research shows that the language we speak does affect how we think and this shapes how we experience the world.

As linguist Guy Deutscher writes, "Since habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world."

Take a look at just a few of the surprising ways language influences the way we think.

Language Shapes How We View the Future

When economist Keith Chen analyzed data from 76 countries, he found that speakers of "futureless languages" — those that use the same phrasing to describe events, regardless of whether they're happening now, happened in the past or will happen tomorrow — are more likely to save money and make good health decisions than speakers of "futured languages" like English.

Chen concluded that speakers of futureless languages, such as Chinese, are more mindful of how their daily decisions affect their futures because they don't speak of the future in a way that's distinct from the past.

And How We Orient Ourselves

If you spoke Guugu Yimithirr, the language of an Australian Aboriginal community, you wouldn't refer to an object as being to your left or right — you'd say it was northwest or southeast.

Speakers of the language don't even use words like "front" or "behind." When it comes to direction or orientation, they speak strictly in cardinal directions.

According to Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky, about a third of the world's languages discuss space in absolute terms like this rather than the relative ones we use in English.

To speak such a language, you must be constantly aware of where the cardinal directions are, and research proves that such speakers have an incredible sense of orientation.

From an early age, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr pay attention to their natural environment, noting the sun's position in the sky and the direction of wind, and they develop a memory of their changing orientation as they move through the world.

Children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as the age of 2 and master the system by 7 or 8.

Language and Accountability

Here's another way language shapes the way we think. Let's say you broke a glass. Whether you smashed it intentionally or simply broke it by accident, in English we'll often say you broke it — regardless of your intent.

But Japanese and Spanish speakers typically phrase such an occurrence as "the glass broke itself."

How the language we speak assigns blame even influences how we remember certain events. One study found that English speakers were more likely to recall who accidentally spilled drinks or popped balloons in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers.

Psychological Effects of Grammatical Gender

In English, we can say we spent time with a friend or neighbor without having to identify the sex of that person. However, languages like French, Spanish and German require the speaker to consider the sex of the person they're referring to.

In addition to assigning a gender to a person, these languages also assign a gender to inanimate objects, and they don’t always agree. In Spanish, table (la mesa) is feminine, but in German, table (der Tisch) is masculine.

English is actually the odd one out among European languages in that it doesn't mark objects as masculine or feminine.

Numerous experiments have shown that assigning gender to inanimate objects affects how we view them. In the 1990s, psychologists asked German and Spanish speakers to describe a list of objects.

Not surprisingly, Spanish speakers deemed clocks and bridges (words preceded by the masculine article "el" instead of the feminine "la") as having manly properties like strength while German speakers, who speak of those same objects in feminine terms, described them as slender and elegant.

A 2012 study concluded that the effects of grammatical gender may have even greater reach. It found that in countries whose dominant language marks gender, female participation in the workforce drops by 12 percent.

Color Perception

Researchers have found that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue.

Speakers of the indigenous language Zuni don't differentiate between yellow and orange, and studies show they have trouble telling the two colors apart.

However, Russian speakers have different words for light blue and dark blue, and they're better than English speakers at picking out varying shades of the hue.

Essentially, speakers of various languages could view the same painting and experience it differently based on whether their native tongue has a word for the colors the artist used.

Learn more about linguistic relativity in the video below.

Video: Samanta Zucker