Does language shape how you think?

November 23, 2018

Pormpuraaw, Australia.

On the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia, live the Kuuk Thaayore, a small Aboriginal community whose language has a very peculiar trait.

Instead of using the words right, left, forward, and back, to define space as we do in English, they use cardinal points such as north, south, east, and west. This means that in the Kuuk Thaayorre language you get to say things like “Excuse me sir, please move to the north northwest a little,” or “Don’t panic but, you have a venomous spider in your southeast leg”.

And to think that as a kid I had trouble understanding the difference between left and right… It’s like the Kuuk Thaayorre were born with an internal compass. At any time of day and night they know exactly where they are. But why is that? Is it just me—do you know where north, south, east and west are regardless of your surroundings?

Well, according to researcher and Stanford University professor of psychology Lera Boroditsky, who studied the Aboriginal community’s language, “Speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings.”

So, what is the role of language in all this? Do the Kuuk Thaayorre think this way because their language forces them to? Or is there some other reason? Can language really shape how we think?

A debate that has fallen into disrepute

To answer these questions we need to go back a little. The debate on the influence of language in thought has been going on for years, ever since anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf published an article, in 1940, suggesting that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

However, despite the promising start, Whorf’s theory crash-landed when people realised that there had never been any actual evidence to support his claims. So, no wonder that in the following decades, studies on the influence of language in thought had fallen into disrepute. The topic was pretty much swept under the carpet until, a few years ago, the scientific community finally picked up the pieces of Whorf’s theory and began studying if language really does shape thinking.

The results have been quite surprising. Recent research has in fact revealed that when we learn our mother tongue we acquire certain habits of thought and this shapes our experience in many ways.

Language shapes the way we see the world

According to Guy Deutscher, researcher at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester, on an article for the New York Times, a language does not forbid its speakers to think anything, unlike what Whorf initially suggested, but it does shape the way we see the world.

“If different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”

– Guy Deutscher, linguist and author of Through the Language Glass and The Unfolding of Language.

Going back to the Kuuk Thaayorre, it’s not as if English speakers can’t learn the cardinal directions, but they don’t have an internal compass like the Kuuk Thaayorre do. The reason this happens is because the Kuuk Thaayorre’s language habitually obliges them to think about cardinal points and this shapes how they see the world.

But, does this mean that if you learn Kuuk Thaayorre you’ll be able to think like they do?

A chicken or the egg situation

In Lera Boroditsky’s opinion, “When you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.” Of course, there must be a difference between your mother tongue and a second language but it’s interesting to see that we do actually learn new ways of thinking just by learning a new language.

For instance, at Stanford, Lera Boroditsky and her team, have taught English speakers different ways of talking about time:

“In one study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order (e.g., the next month is the “down month” and the last month is the “up month”). Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers.”

Nonetheless, these questions around the intersection of language and thought are far from being answered. As Dr Betty Birner, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University, suggested, this can actually be seen as a chicken-or-the-egg problem: “Are you unable to think about things you don’t have words for, or do you lack words for them because you don’t think about them?”

Ultimately, there is no straight answer as to whether language influences thought. We still have a long way to go, but at least we can stop pretending we all think the same.

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