How Language Affects Thought

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There was an interesting article by Guy Deutscher in the New York Times last week about how the language we grow up speaking affects the way we think and the way we perceive the world around us. Linguists used to believe that our thoughts were constricted by the limits of our native tongue-for example, it was believed that people who spoke languages without a future tense for verbs could not understand the concept of the future.  That’s simply not true; the human brain is amazingly capable of learning new concepts and processing new information.

But according to Deutscher, language does shape how we see the world by shaping the way we think about and interact with our environment and the things in it.  For example, English speakers for the most part don’t think about whether an inanimate object is “male” or “female.” However, people who speak languages like French and Spanish have to think about inanimate objects as having a gender, and this consequently influences how they describe these objects.

Another example: in some languages, instead of using directions like “right” and “left,” all directions are given as cardinal directions, like north, south, east or west. Native speakers of these languages develop a keen sense of direction, one that seems almost supernatural to people who are used to saying “to your right” or “to your left.” In order to accurately describe their world, they have to.

What does all of this mean? According to Deutscher, looking at how language shapes the way we think about and experience the world can help us better understand each other:

“We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.”