Do languages influence our way of thinking?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

Each language forces you to think in a slightly different way. There are many concepts that can be expressed easily in one language but not in another. The first thing people think of when asked about differences between languages is just isolated words, such as English having no equivalent to the German word Schadenfreude, which means “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others”.

However, the differences are sometimes much less trivial than that. There are languages, such as Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal language (and the source of the word “kangaroo”), that don’t use words like “left”, “right”, or “behind me” to determine directions and positions. Instead, they use the cardinal directions (i.e. “north”, “east”, “south”, “west” and their derivatives).

To be able to do that, speakers of the language learn to keep track of the cardinal directions irrespective of environment they are in; even if you blindfold them and turn them around several times, they are still able to point their finger north without hesitating.

Even more interestingly, this change has a fascinating impact on the way they remember things; the speakers remember spatial relations in terms of cardinal directions. When they tell a story, they won’t tell you, “Then I saw a kangaroo in front of me”; rather, they would tell you, “Then I saw a kangaroo in the east.” Amazingly, the directions are not made up for the sake of the story; the speakers have been observed to give exactly the same directions when telling the same story again after several years.

Masculine and feminine qualities

There are even more important ways in which the language you speak influences your personality. Unlike English, most European languages assign a gender (feminine, masculine, or neuter) to almost every single noun. There is little relation between this so-called grammatical gender and the biological gender.

When a noun describes a woman or a female animal, they are usually a she, e.g. die Frau (she-woman), la chatte (she-cat). When it describes a man or a male animal, it is usually a he, e.g. der Mann (he-man), le chat (he-cat), but even this rule cannot be taken for granted. For example, das Mädchen means “girl” in German, but it is an ‘it’ because all German -chen nouns are ‘it’; la girafe is a she in french even if you speak about a male giraffe.

Whether a thing is a she, he, or it is mostly random. A bridge is a she in German (die Brücke) but a he in Spanish (el puente).

There was a study with native German and Spanish speakers who spoke English proficiently. They were presented with various English words that had opposing genders in their mother tongues (such as in the ‘bridge’ example above).

Participants were asked to assign various characteristics to the objects in question. The study found out the subjects tended to assign feminine qualities (such as beautiful, fragile, elegant, pretty) to nouns that were grammatically feminine and masculine qualities (such as big, sturdy, dangerous, strong) to grammatically masculine objects, even though the whole survey took place in English.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let’s just say that whether we want it or not, the languages we speak influence the way we think. There’s a beautiful saying in Czech that translates approximately as:

“As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.”
Czech saying

So, why don’t you learn a new language? It can give you more than just a way to communicate with other people; it may allow you to develop a whole new personality.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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