How real is the threat posed by George Orwell’s Newspeak? Janice Lau investigates the various ways by which language influences how we think.
If you’ve studied another language in school, such as French, German or Spanish, you would know that there exists more than one form of “the” in these languages. In German, for example, all nouns have a gender. There are three forms of “the” – one masculine “der”, one feminine “die” and one neutral “das”. Thus, German is often referred to as a gendered language, unlike English. The effects of this can be seen in the gender identity of children, for example. One study found that Hebrew-speaking children were aware of their genders one year prior to Finnish-speaking children. This may be due to the fact that Hebrew is a gendered language, while Finnish is not. This idea that our language in some way shapes our thought, is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Studies on bilingual speakers have also provided greater insight into Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In a study conducted on Spanish-Swedish bilinguals, the researchers found that bilingualism can alter your perception of time. They noted that people who speak two languages perceive time “more fluidly” than those who speak one language. In English, time is described spatially, as if one is walking along a path – something happened a “while” ago. Meanwhile, in languages like Spanish, time is described volumetrically – a “big” moment. In their study, the researchers concluded that bilinguals tended to be more readily able to switch between the two concepts of time and as such, they had a more flexible approach to thinking about time. They thus concluded that time is not one universally understood concept in one manner, but instead, interpretations are shaped by language.
I did, I do, and I will do. English is a language with tenses – the past, the present and the future. However, there are also “tenseless” languages, such as Mandarin. In a recent TED talk by Keith Chen, a Chinese American Behavioural Economist, he posits that speakers of these languages are much better at making decisions, whether this be decisions with regards to saving money, or decisions about health, such as smoking habits. In comparing these tenseless language speakers to English speakers, English speakers were 30% less likely to be actively saving money. The researchers conclude that tenseless speakers often perceive their life as a continuum – as one unit, and as such, there is a great focus on the impact of their decisions now on themselves in the future. Thus, they are more mindful in making decisions being reminded of the impact this decision may have on their future selves. Tenseless speakers are thus more likely to be better savers, healthier and moreover, they tend to live longer.
In English, we describe the location of an item in relative terms. So, for example, “the car is to the left of the tree”. Meanwhile, in Australian Aboriginal communities, they would say “the car is to the north”. In other words, English negotiates space in relative terms, while some languages refer to things in absolute spatial terms. Languages with such spatial absoluteness provide their speakers with greater navigation skills, being more accustomed to paying attention to the four cardinal points and thus, making them much better travel companions for easily lost and spatially oblivious individuals.
Language may also have an impact on the way we perceive colours. In certain cultures, colours are expressed solely as cold or warm. In other languages, there may be 12 different colours and the list goes on. Yet, the existence of words for these colours may impact our perception. For example, Russians are exceptionally good at distinguishing between light blue and dark blue. This may be attributed to the fact that Russian speakers have words to describe light blue and dark blue, and thus, the arguably negligible difference between these two colours may prove more striking for Russian speakers.
In numbers, researchers have found that Chinese-speaking children are much better at math at an earlier stage in life than English-speaking children. The reason for this can be found in the numbering system of the two languages. In Chinese, the system is quite clear and transparent – the number 11 is simply “ten one”. Meanwhile, in English, 11 is “eleven” – a whole new word to add to the child’s vocabulary. This proves more difficult as the child has to learn a whole new word which is not a natural extension of the words it has previously learned.
Speakers of different languages tend to focus on different aspects of their immediate environment. This seemingly starts at a young age, influencing the way we think and see the world all the way up to adulthood. The contrasts are more strikingly apparent when we look at studies of bilingual individuals and how their attitudes tend to shift when responding in different languages, seemingly adopting the culture of the language in which they are responding in.
It may be comforting to know that to learn another language is to learn another mode of thought. And research has shown that while it is more difficult to learn new languages as we get older, we never quite lose the ability. So if you have been considering broadening your mind, learning a new language may be a good place to start!