How Our Language Influences The Way We Think


Shirley Huang, Staff Writer

Language, it is an extraordinary ability that we humans possess. It allows us to transmit our thoughts to one another through sounds made by our mouths, through tones and hisses and puffs, creating vibrations in the air. And those vibrations travel into our eardrums where they are translated into thoughts in our minds. 

Currently, there are over 7,000 languages spoken around the world, all unique in their own way, differing in sounds, vocabulary, grammar, and structure. So that begs the question: does the language we speak influence the way we think? 

This alluring idea that language has power over our mind has been speculated and debated for centuries. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, once said, “To have a second language is to have a second soul”—expressing that language crafts our reality. Contrarily, Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer and anthropology lecturer at Yale University, published an article in the 1940 M.I.T.’s Technology Review theorizing that our mother tongue may actually limit our perception of reality. 

Fascinated by this, Lera Boroditsky, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, has conducted research on the relationships between our mind, world, and language. 

The most striking evidence Boroditsky found was from an Aboriginal community in Australia known as the Kuuk Thaayorre. In their language, there are no words that translate to “left” or “right.” Instead, they rely on cognitive ability, referring to everything in cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. For instance, they may say something like, “Move your foot to the south-southeast.” Or, “There’s a fly on your northwest arm.” Interestingly enough, the way they say “hello” is “Which way are you going,” to which you would respond using cardinal directions, saying something like, “I’m heading north-northeast in the far distance.”

As a result, languages similar to that of the Kuuk Thaayorre help their speakers stay well oriented. People once gave some biological excuse for why they were unable to detect their position or for why they lacked a sense of direction. But what the Kuuk Thaayorre people have shown us is that because of language and because of culture, humans can gain a multitude of different skills, such as becoming better oriented in the world.

With that said, there is also a big difference in how people think about time. If given images of a man in three distinct stages of life, from a newborn to a young adult and finally as an elder, how might people of different native languages organize them to indicate the passing of time? An English speaker might organize the images the same way they read and write: from left to right. Ask a Hebrew or Arabic speaker, though, and they would place them in the opposite direction, from right to left, for the same reason.

Now, consider how the Kuuk Thaayorre people would organize these pictures. As a reminder, they don’t use terms like “left” or “right.” Instead, when facing south, they organize time from left to right. Facing north, right to left. But, what’s most fascinating is that when they’re facing east, they place the pictures as though time is coming towards the body—not right or left, but forward. For them, time is positioned according to the landscape, not their body. 

What this indicates is that different languages compel you to focus on different types of information. This applies to the way we perceive colors as well. In English, for example, green and blue are considered separate colors but for many other languages, they are considered different shades of the same color. Depending on how your native language divides the spectrum of visible light, it has great influence over your visual sensitivity to certain color differences in the physical world. The more verbal distinctions your language has, the more your brain will exaggerate the contrast between shades of color. Remarkably, your experience observing a painting is unique to the language you speak as it depends, to a certain extent, upon whether you have a word for each of the individual colors you see. 

Another example of how language influences our mind is the use of grammatical gender, a system in which every noun is assigned a gender, either masculine or feminine. It is said to have influence over a speaker’s feelings and associations towards the objects they encounter. To demonstrate, take, for example, the sun, feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. If you were to ask a German speaker to describe the sun, they would be compelled to use words such as “beautiful” and “elegant”—stereotypically feminine words. Whereas Spanish speakers would be more likely to use words such as “strong” and “dangerous”—words that suggest masculinity. In doing so, speakers of these languages tend to think of inanimate objects as though they are real people. 

Furthermore, language has influence over our perceptions. If, say, your brother had accidentally broken a vase, it would be fine to remark, “He broke the vase.” Whereas Spanish speakers would have to specify that it was an accident, saying something similar to, “The vase broke itself.” Hence, you would leave out the information about who had actually committed the act and instead focus on their intention. Therefore, two people, witnessing the same event, draw their attention to different details because their language compels them to. 

English speakers are also more likely to place blame even if they know it was an accident. This is implicated by the use of the single pronoun, “He broke it,” as opposed to, “It broke.” Language guides our response and our reasoning to certain events.

In conclusion, all these instances present habits of speech that vary across different languages. Speakers of languages foreign to our own may not always contemplate on the same aspects of life simply because their language does not compel them to. Rather, habits of speech have unique influence over every speaker, from impacting our emotions and our perceptions to shaping our orientation in the world. They become habits of mind, instilled within us through our language and our culture.

Graphic Courtesy of NPR.ORG.