Language is a body of words and systems for their utility common to people who are from the same community or country, the same geographical location or the same cultural tradition. Language is the unique human gift, central to the experience of being human. It is the human capability to obtain and use complex systems of communication. It is estimated that there are between five thousand to seven thousand languages in existence on this planet. The speakers of different languages have different thought processes, which are directly influenced by the language they speak. A language places restrictions and permissions on the thought process in the minds of its speakers and directly affects their thinking when they talk in society.
As a curious language student interested in learning more about languages, I am eager to know how and why language affects human thought and society’s thinking. How does a language affect the thinking of its speakers anyway? How deep and lasting are these effects on human thinking? What are the types of the effects of language on its speakers? What is the language’s power over the mind? Are people speaking different languages thinking differently just because they speak different languages? Does learning a new language change the way we think? Who are actively involved in the research on the effects of language on human thinking? What are some evidence that prove a language affects the thought process of its speakers and the society? These questions and their answers helped me in my quest to learn more about how language affects the thought process of its speakers.
When we learn in our mother tongue, we acquire certain habits of thinking that molds our experience in significant and often surprising ways. Languages are different from one another in many ways. Each language requires different things from its speakers. For instance, when we have to say that we saw someone at a place: In Mian, a language spoken in the Papua New Guinea, the verb we use will reveal whether the event happened in the past, yesterday or just now, whereas in Indonesian language the verb used would describe nothing about the time or date of the event that happened. The Russian language would require us to reveal the gender of that someone who we met at the place. In Mandarin, a language spoken by Chinese people, we would have to reveal if that person is related or not, and if related, by blood or marriage because there are separate words that describe all these separate relations.
A language often puts restrictions on the thought process in the minds of the speakers of that language. For example, a speaker of Piraha language, a language spoken in the Amazon, cannot say the words “fifty-five” or “forty-six”. For him, there are no such words which describe these quantities. There are just words for “few” or “many”.
A language has diverse effects on the minds and actions of its speakers. There are circumstances when extreme feelings can arise in the minds of speakers just because of alanguage. For example, In Dennis Baron’s reading he raises a common question that arises in theminds of many Spanish speaking workers working in an English speaking work environment – “Can I be fired for speaking Spanish on the job?” (Baron1) The Spanish language has brought a fear in the minds of Spanish speaking workers. They are afraid of speaking their native language and think that they may lose their jobs, their way of livelihood and source of earning. Whether the worker gets fired or not depends. Federal law favors workers speaking in the languages of their choice when on breaks and when talking privately. Courts allow employers to designate the language of their choice they want their employees to be speaking in when dealing with the public. Thirty states in the United States of America have declared English as their official language. So, whether or not a worker speaking the Spanish language in an English work environment gets fired really depends. But, the fear of losing their jobs directly affects their thought process in deciding which language to converse in at the workplace.
As we can see that a language clearly affects thinking processes of different talking people in many contexts, it is fair to say that language affects thought while talking. Most questions about how languages mold thought start with a simple observation that languages aredifferent in many aspects. Let’s take an example. If we have to say “Bill read Brown’s famous novel”. Let’s focus here just on the verb “read”. To say this in English Language, we need to mark the verb read for its tense. We have to pronounce it like ‘red’ instead of ‘reed’. In theIndonesian language, we don’t need to. In fact, we cannot change the verb to indicate past tense. In Russian Language, we would have to change the verb to mark gender and tense. It means ifMelinda was reading Brown’s novel instead of Bill, the gender would use in Russian Language would be totally different. In Turkish language, we would have to indicate how we had obtained the information that Bill read Brown’s novel: whether we had got it from a second hand source or seen Bill reading Brown’s novel with our own eyes or simply heard about it or read about it. The verbs used to describe all these cases would be distinct in Turkish Language. It is clear that different languages require different things from their speakers. So does this imply that different speakers think differently about the world? Do English, Russian, Indonesian, and Turkish people end up experiencing and recalling their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages?
According to Lera Boroditsky, “For some scholars, the answer to this question is a straight yes. Look at the way these people talk, they might say.” (Boroditsky1) She says, “Certainly, speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world just so that they can use their languages properly.” (Boroditsky1)
Because people think about different aspects of an event to fulfill the syntax of the languages they are speaking, they must think differently. It is clear that the thought process is directly affected by the language of the speaker. Thus, a Language affects thought of its speakers.
It has been demonstrated in a series of tests that we even see colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are distinct variations in different languages where languages carve upthe visible light’s spectrum. For instance, in the English language, the colors green and blue are totally separate and distinct colors. In some languages these two colors which we are said to be different are said to be the shades of the same color. Isn’t that weird?
According to Guy Deutscher,
“It turns out that the colors that our language routinelyobliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between the shades of color if these have different names in our language.” (Deutscher1)
In some languages, there are no left and right, there are just directions like east, west, south and north. So, if we ask a person speaking such language where his/her left leg is, he/she would say that it is on the southwest corner of his/her body. Confusing as it sounds, a language can create many confusions in the mind of a person who is not acquainted with that particular language. Obviously, it would take some time to learn that language, but the person would have to go through the whole process of learning that language to get what people are saying or talking about.
There might be people who do not support the statement that ‘A Language affectsthought while talking.’ It should be made clear to anyone who opposes that language affects thought that a language indeed affects the thought process of its speakers. Those people might say that language has no correlation with the thinking process of its speakers. They might say that we do not need language to think, we can think of anything. My response to this would be that people need language to think. We cannot just think of anything if we do not have words from our language to describe what we are thinking. And what are our thoughts anyway if we cannot describe them? They would simply be meaningless thoughts that we cannot materialize and we would not be able to make others think the same way we are thinking. It would be almost impossible to make other people think the same way we are thinking and make them believe what we are thinking if we do not have common words to describe our thought process. They might raise the question, Are you unable to think things because you don’t have words for them,or do you lack words for them because you don’t think of them? My answer would be that, the language limits us in our thinking because we don’t have any word to describe the thought. Language has once again directly affected the way we think. So what can be done? Should we think of more words to describe our thoughts or can we just not think about them? The questions remain. I suggest such people to learn other languages and broaden their thinking. That way they might be able to borrow words from other languages into their own languages and be able to describe their thoughts. That would solve the problem. They can now think and talk about it because they have words to describe their thought, and nobody can now say that we lack words to describe their thoughts.
Thus, we know that language affects the thought process of human beings, a society and people from a geographical location or the whole country while they speak or talk. Language penetrates social life. Components of social life constitute an intrinsic part of the way language is used. Language is a part of the mental architecture used to represent cultural experiences that are remnants of earlier cognitive evolution.
According to Boas,
“Structural features of a language that constrain what speakers can say will reflect cultural ideas otherwiseinaccessible to researchers.”(Todd, Fiske and Lindzey1)
Speakers of different languages may represent physically similar states of affairs quite differently. They have different thought processes that are directly influenced by the language they speak. A language places many restrictions and permissions on the thought process in the minds of its speakers and directly controls the thinking of talking people in society. A language often puts many restrictions on the thought process in the minds of the speakers of that language. Thus, it is clear that a language affects the thought process of its speakers when they talk. So, is it fair to refute the statement that Language affects thought?
- Gilbert, Daniel Todd., Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey. “Language and Social Behavior.”The Handbook of Social Psychology. Vol. 2. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998. 41-88. The Handbook of Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
- Boroditsky, Lera. “HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?” HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? Edge, 11 June 2009. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
- Baron, Dennis. “Language and Society.” PBS. PBS, 2015. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
- Deutscher, Guy. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Aug. 2010. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.