The way you see the world around you is shaped by your language.
Language is not just a tool of communication, a way to describe the world around us, or an instrument to help us convey our feelings. Studies show that language can actually change the way we see our world and that it can alter the way we think, behave and it even have deep bearing on our personalities.
An interesting research that was done by the University of Stanford and MIT led by Professor Lera Boroditsky shows that people speaking different languages have different perceptions of the world, because language shapes the way people think.
For instance Russian speakers can distinguish shades of blue better than say English speakers can, because in Russian light blue and dark blue are two completely separate colors and they go by two different names: light blue is “Goluboy” and dark blue is “Siniy”. To an English speaker they are both “blue”.
If you ask German native speakers and Spanish native speakers to describe a “key”, overwhelmingly German speakers described the key as “rough, heavy, metal” while the Spanish speakers have used words like “golden, little, shiny”. This happens because the word in German is masculine and in Spanish is feminine. The opposite occurred when the same speakers were asked to describe a “bridge” because it’s feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Germans used words like “beautiful, elegant, fragile”, while Spanish speakers said “big, dangerous, sturdy”. Depending on the gender of the word in the language, words seem to personify the stereotypical attributes of their gender.
This is also true in the depiction or personification in arts. Depending on the gender of the word in their language, it can be seen that German artists more often will paint “death” as a man, while Russian painters will portray it as a woman.
Professor Lera writes that there was a study that was done 1980 that shows due to the fact that the Finnish language doesn’t mark gender at all, their kids take a longer time until they figure their own gender compared to speakers of other languages that mark gender.
Language can also affect the way you view time and space. A study that was done on the Kuuk Thaayorre, a small remote aboriginal group, where instead of using words like “right, left, forward, or back” to describe a space relative to the observer, they use the cardinal direction words like “east, west, north, or south” to determine that space. The study showed clearly that the people that speak such languages have more awareness of where they are and are more geographically oriented than English speakers. They were able to perform better at navigational exercises even in unfamiliar locations. When asked to arrange pictures of a man aging, the people of Kuuk Thaayorre, regardless of where they were facing, always arranged the photos from east to west. Where English speakers arranged the same pictures from left to right and Hebrew speakers arranged them from right to left.
The study also revealed that languages like Spanish or Japanese don’t focus too much on the agent in the sentence. Sentences are more like “The egg was broken”, where in English they are more likely to tell you who broke the egg. This is not to say that Spanish or Japanese speakers do not notice who did the action, it just states that in their language it’s not given as much weight as in other languages. Thus, comparatively, English speakers had better memory of who did the action when shown a series of videos.
So as you can see, speaking a language really affects how your mind views the world around you and can even impact your thoughts. So what would happen when you learn to speak another language? How does this affect your thinking? I will explore this further in my next article.