Language is a distinctively human gift, essential to our existence as being human. We communicate with each other using an incredible multitude of languages, each differing from the other in countless ways. For a long time, the notion that language could shape thought was considered at best untestable and often simply wrong. This was the case until Benjamin Whorf studied Hopi, a Native American language. According to his studies, Whorf argued that “speakers of Hopi and speakers of English see the world differently because of differences in their language (Boroditsky, How Language Shapes Thought, 2011). People who speak different languages do undeniably think differently. Language is so essential to our experience, so profoundly a part of being human, that it’s difficult to conceive life without it. Can language shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and how we live our lives? Can human being think different just because they speak another language? If we learn new languages, can it change the way we think? The answer to all these questions is a complex one because all of them are involved in nearly all of the core controversies in the study of humanity itself and in which psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, linguists, and anthropologists are the center.
Individuals, who communicate through different languages, think differently since they are influenced by grammar, and it can significantly affect how we see the world. There are currently around seven thousand languages or dialects in the world through which people communicate. For example, in the Mian language, which is spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb described when the event just happened, happened yesterday or a long time ago; While in Indonesian, the verb does not even indicate whether the event has occurred or is yet to occur. In Russian, the verb would reveal my gender. Finally, if you speak in Pirahã, a language of the Amazon, you cannot say 24 since there are no words to name numbers but only words like ‘few’ or ‘many.’
Language can model the most fundamental aspects of human experience such as the perception of space, time, causality, or the relationship with others (Boroditsky, Does Language Shape Thought?: Conceptions of Time, 2001). In the Kuuk Thaayorre language, spoken by the population of Pormpuraaw (a small aboriginal community located in northeastern Australia), there are no words like “left,” “right,” “forward,” and “back” to name relative spatial locations as commonly used in English. They use words that denote ‘absolute’ spatial directions such as, north, south, east, and west to define spatial locations at all scales.
In Spanish or English, we also use the cardinal points but only for large spatial scales. Nobody says, for example: ‘the chair is east of the table’ or ‘the one that is northwest of my brother is my cousin.’ But, how can this such as language affect the perception of the world? The inhabitants of Pormpuraaw have to stay oriented at all times, so they cannot lose the north to speak correctly. The normal greeting in that community is “Where are you going,” and the answer should be something like “Northeast” If the person doesn’t know which way they are facing, they can’t even get past “Hello” (Boroditsky, How Language Shapes Thought, 2011).
This particular perception of space that Kuuk Thaayorre speakers have also affected the way they organize time. In an experiment carried out by the cognitive psychologist Lera (Boroditsky, How Language Shapes Thought, 2011) speakers of different languages (Kuuk Thaayorre, English, and Hebrew) were given a set of photographs that showed a specific temporal progression (the growth of a plant or the stages of the life of a person). They were then asked to order the photos on the floor in chronological order (from the first event to the last). Each person did the test twice, each time sitting facing a different cardinal point.
In all cases, English speakers ordered photographs from left to right while Hebrew speakers did so from right to left. These results demonstrated that the writing direction in language plays a significant role in the way we organize time. But the most curious thing, of course, happened with the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers. They did not order photos from left to right or from right to left; they did it from east to west. That is, when they sat facing south, they ordered them from left to right when they looked to the north, from right to left. And when they looked to the east, they ordered the photographs towards them. At no time where they told where they were looking, they spontaneously knew and used that spatial orientation to build their temporal representation.
Language merges in basic concepts of visual perceptions when it comes to the ability of color discrimination. Some countries make more distinctions between color than others. For example, comparing the ability to discriminate colors between English and Russian speakers, they differed with the shades of blues. Russian speakers make an obligatory distinction between light and dark blue while English speakers can call all that fall into the same category with the same word “blue” (Jonathan Winawer, 2007).
Each human group, each tribe, uses its language to describe the world it inhabits. Each language provides that group with the cognitive tools to understand it and in turn holds the knowledge and vision of the world developed in that culture for thousands of years (Slobin, 1996). Each language determines the way in which the world is perceived, categorized and ordered; the way we assign a meaning to it. How do we conclude that it not some aspects of culture, but is language itself that creates these differences in thought? Just see, if when you teach people a new language, they do learn not only a new way of talking but also a new way of thinking. Suggesting that the patterns in language can undeniably play a significant role in constructing how we think is an understatement.
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