Language as a Thinking Tool

Have you ever thought about the fact that if you spoke another language, you would think differently?

Language is one of the most important milestones that makes us human. Could you imagine a world that everyone speaks the same language? If we are to think that about 7.6 billion people currently live in the world, it is not surprising to have many languages, right? But, can you guess how many languages exist? According to recent recordings, there are 7.099 spoken language all around the world!

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Each point shows a different language and their colors differs depending on the region. Ethnologue.

So, if language is important for human beings, and we have thousands of them, how does the language we speak influence us, our thoughts and our interactions with others?
One theory is called linguistic relativity or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Linguistic relativity has a continuum from strong to weak versions. In this case, firstly linguists think about language having a direct effect on thought. Some of them even supported the idea that people who speak a different language, think differently. This has been termed linguistic determinism. But, how do people come up with this idea? One of the reasons was the Pirahã language. This language is spoken by people who live in Amazonas, Brazil. In this language, people have a one-two-many number system. That is, when they calculate more than two numbers, their calculation become false. In an experiment, participants from the Pirahã Tribe were asked to order batteries from a set of nuts arranged in a line. The results indicated that Pirahã tried to use their own number system to solve the task but when the number of the batteries increased they were unable to put exact numbers which experimenter wanted. But, linguistic determinism has many contrary ideas. Because it makes bilingualism and translations between languages impossible!

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In this Picture, you can see a group of people from Pirahã Tribe.

Music Perception

Although, linguistic determinism does not have many supporters these days, linguistic relativity maintains its popularity. Recent studies show that language has not only an effect on thinking, but it also influences perception of the world, even when we are not using language! For example, imagine that you are listening to music. Think about how would you describe its pitch in your own language? Young or old? Light or heavy? In Farsi, people describe it as a thick or thin pitch, Dutch speakers describe it as a low or high pitch. In a study, Farsi and Dutch participants were asked to listen to different kind of pitches while on the screen there were lines with different heights or thicknesses to find out whether they mentally represent pitch differently or not. The results indicated that irrelevant height information had a greater influence on Dutch people’s answers and thickness information had larger effect on Farsi speakers!

Color Perception

Furthermore, language can also influence our cognition of colors. In order to prove this idea, a study was conducted. In Russian, there are two words to describe blues, lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy). In English there is no different linguistic categories for blues. Therefore, participants were selected from English and Russian speakers. They were asked to match the blue which was in the screen with a target blue. When the target blue and the other blue were in the different linguistic categories, Russian speakers had faster responses than when blues were in the same linguistic categories. But, there was no difference for English speakers.

Grammatical Gender

On the other hand, in many languages nouns have a gender. These can differ depending on the language. For example, ‘sun’ is masculine in Spanish, feminine in German and neuter in Russian. Have you ever thought that such a component of a given language could have an impact on memory? In a previous experiment, participants were better at remembering objects, if objects had a consistent proper name for its gender. In the task, participants first learned proper names for different objects such as Patrick for an apple. Then, they were asked to remember these objects. In German, apple is masculine and, in the task, when it had a masculine proper name, German speakers remembered the word better. It was opposite for Spanish speakers. Because apple is a feminine word in Spanish and they were not as good as German speakers when it had a masculine proper name! So, when people learned nouns with gender, it is impacted by their own gender concepts.

 

meme
Quickmeme.

 

The future is behind us!

Time is a hard concept to describe. But, if you were asked to describe the past, how would you do it? It is behind us, right? And for the future, we will think about it as it lies ahead. But, it is not the same for all languages. In Aymara language, people who live in South America have opposite concepts for the time. Even, the word for the front, “nayra” has a meaning of past and “qhipa” which means back has a meaning of future. It has previously been shown that gesture and speech production function together in representing spatial information about the subject spoken about.

A study was conducted and Spanish and Aymara speakers where chosen as participants. Their gestures were observed when they spoke about past and future. The results showed that Aymara speakers pointed back when talking about the future and Spanish speakers pointed forward when they were talking about the future!

Bilingualism

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”  –  Charlemagne

Above, you have read some examples that shows the effect of language on people’s cognition. But, what about bilinguals? How does having more than one language shape one’s perception of the world? Which language has greater impact on cognition? In some languages, when people try to describe an event, they are focusing on the end-point, for example in German and Swedish. Whereas other languages describe an event as ongoing and do not focus on the end-point. Good examples are English and Arabic languages. An experiment was conducted with German, English monolinguals and German and English bilinguals. In this study, participants were asked to watch a scene which had different levels of goal orientation. Firstly, monolingual participants were tested. It was found that German speakers had more goal information than English speakers. When bilinguals were asked about the scenes in English, it was consistent with English speakers that they had less information than participants who were asked about the scene in a German context. Therefore, it can be easily seen that the language of the task made the difference between description of event categorizations among participants! We could conclude that monolinguals only have one perspective for event categorization whereas bilinguals have more than one perspective to describe it. In this case, we could agree with Charlemagne’s idea that bilingualism gave people more than one soul!

To sum up, you have read the effects of language on people’s thoughts from several perspectives. As you can see, language is not just a part of communication, it is more than that. It influences how we perceive the world, how we conceptualize the world and our interaction with others. For instance, we would have a hard time understanding people who speak the Aymara language, if we are not aware of their time conceptualization. But of course, language is not the only thing that affects thought. What cannot be ignored is the effect of culture and individual experiences. For example, some dialects of Inuit have more than 50 words for different kinds of snow. Because, they live a snowy environment! But, still language keeps its importance when we think about thinking!

 

Feature Image : Clifton Translations. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://cliftontranslations.com/languages.html

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