People have been asking this question for hundreds of years. Thousands of studies in linguistics didn’t present one clear answer to this seemingly simple question: Is it true that the language I speak shapes my thoughts?
Correlation between language and thinking
When we speak one language, we agree that words are representations of ideas, people, places, and events. The language that children learn connects to their culture and surroundings. Does the meaning of the word reflect our thinking? Psychologists have long investigated whether language shapes thoughts and actions, or whether our thoughts and beliefs shape our language. They wanted to understand how the language habits of a community encourage members of that community to interpret language particularly. After multiple studies, they proposed that language determines thought, suggesting. For example, if there is no past-tense verbs in the language persons speaks, he will not have troubles to think about the past.
The true meaning of language
Let’s analyze what you know of other languages; perhaps you even speak multiple languages. Imagine for a moment that your closest friend fluently speaks more than one language. Do you think friend thinks differently, depending on which language is being spoken? You may know a few words that are not translatable from their original language into English. For example, the Portuguese word “Saudade” originated during the 15th century, when Portuguese sailors left home to explore the seas and travel to Africa or Asia. Those left behind described the emptiness and fondness they felt as “Saudade”. The word came to express many meanings, including loss, nostalgia, yearning, warm memories, and hope. There is no single word in English that includes all of those emotions in a single description. Do words such as “Saudade” show that different languages produce different patterns of thought in people?
Language may influence how we think, an idea known as linguistic determinism. One recent demonstration of this phenomenon involved differences in how English and Mandarin Chinese speakers talk and think about time. English speakers talk about time using terms that describe changes along a horizontal dimension, for example, saying something like “I’m running behind schedule” or “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” While Mandarin Chinese speakers also describe the time in horizontal terms, it is also not uncommon to use terms associated with a vertical arrangement. People understand the past as being “up” and the future as being “down.” It turns out that these differences in language translate into differences in performance on cognitive tests designed to measure how quickly an individual can recognize temporal relationships. Specifically, when given a series of tasks with vertical priming, Mandarin Chinese speakers were faster at recognizing temporal relationships between months.
Language does not fully determine our thoughts — our thoughts are far too flexible for that — but habitual uses of language can influence our habit of thought and action. For instance, some linguistic practice associates even with cultural values and social institution.
One group of researchers who wanted to investigate how language influences thought compared to how English speakers and the Dani people of Papua New Guinea think and speak about color. The Dani have two words for color: one word for light and one word for dark. In contrast, the English language has 11 color words. Researchers hypothesized that the number of color terms could limit how the Dani people conceptualized color. However, the Dani people could distinguish colors with the same ability as English speakers, despite having fewer words at their disposal.
In Russian, there are two different words for light blue and dark blue. Does this mean that Russian speakers think of these as ‘different’ colors, while having one word (blue) causes English speakers to think of them as the same? Maybe. Do you think of red and pink as different colors? If so, you may be under the influence of your language; Pink is just light red.
So our language doesn’t force us to see only what it gives us words for, but it can affect how we put things into groups. One job of a child learning a language is to figure out which things use the same word. Children, when studying the world, need to learn the difference between classes and categories of concept. Or the child may not realize that the neighbor’s chihuahua also counts as a dog. The child has to learn what the word “dog” really means and what objects it presents.
We learn to group things that are similar and give them the same label, but what counts as being similar enough to fall under a single label may vary from language to language.
So it’s possible to think about something even if I don’t have a word for it?
The influence of language isn’t so much about what we can think about, but rather on how we break up reality into categories and label them. And in this, our language and our thoughts are both influenced by our culture.
Obviously, we do not have words for everything. We only have words for concepts that are important or salient in our culture. This explains why lexicons (or set of words) in languages are all different. The lexicon is like a big, open bag: we borrow words because we need them for referring to new objects, and we store them in the bag. Conversely, some objects are out of usage, and then we get rid of the words we don’t use, meaning we remove them from the bag.
Understanding language as a system of codes helps to understand the language and that fact it codes aspects of the world.
In summary, language functions as a filter of perception, memory, and attention. Whenever we construct or interpret a linguistic statement, we need to focus on specific aspects of the situation that the statement describes.
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