Have you ever heard anyone say that Eskimos have over a hundred words to describe snow? Or that speakers of languages without a future tense are generally happier? What about languages that don’t have numbers for counting large quantities? These are common stories we hear about differences between speakers of different languages.
There is a huge amount of research that has been done about the link between language and psychology or behavior. The subject became popular in the early 20th century when a linguist named Whorf presented his hypothesis that speakers of different languages are cognitively different—they literally process thoughts differently as a result of their respective language’s limitations, or lack thereof.
That idea was widely accepted at the time, but has proven to be only partially true. However, with so many interesting research done on the topic, it is worth considering a few of the more interesting studies.
For example, an article in Scientific American describes a study done with the Piraha tribe in the Amazon who have no number words at all! According to the study, they have only three words for numbers: “around 1”, “some,” and “many.” Can you imagine a world in which we have no numbers to budget our economy and count money? It turns out not having words for numbers doesn’t affect their ability to conceive of different amounts of things, but only their ability to remember specific amounts.
Another article describes a study that showed how, for biligual speakers, the language you speak can determine your world view or your prejudices. The study, involving Arab and Hebrew bilingual speakers, showed that when speaking Arab, the participants linked certain names with a negative feeling, and when speaking Hebrew they didn’t.
The same article brings up the old myth about languages that don’t have any future tense. A study at Yale University showed that those who speak languages without a future tense, like Mandarin Chinese for example, tend to see their lives as a whole (picture a circle), as opposed to seeing it as a timeline. In this way, they tend not to waste money on unnecesary things, take better care of themselves, and live longer. Compared to languages with multiple future tenses, like English, there is a somewhat different life experience which is taking place on a linear axis, in which, as the author cleverly points out, “the past is something we’ve left behind, and the future is like a distant planet where consequences live that we don’t fully intend to visit.” Now there’s some food for thought!
And what about the study between language and navigation skills, brought up in one of the most famous articles on the topic, written by Lera Boroditzsky. She points out that for native speakers in a remote Aboriginal tribe that she studied, there is no word for “right” and “left”, but rather the speaker must always use a specific direction such as “southwest” or “northeast”. As a result, they possessed excellent navigational skills, always knowing which direction they were heading. Talk about having an inner compass!
So does the language we speak really determine the way we think? Or just the way we communicate? The important thing is to focus on our similarities, and enjoy our differences. That is part of the richness of learning another language after all, as you experience new ways of saying things, to also acquire a new way to see things. And that’s a good thing!
As a bilingual speaker, have you ever noticed these kinds of language differences?
Have you ever observed yourself change your way of thinking when you speak a second language?
We love to hear your opinions!