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Does Language Frame our Thinking?

Publicado por Mike el 18/02/2020

I, and at least a few other bilingual people I’ve asked, often find myself thinking that certain concepts are easier to explain in one language than in another. Part of this seems due to the vocabulary itself, i.e. actually having the words to express an idea, while others are related to the type and breadth of cultural contexts that are linked to a language. While researching these topics is complicated by the difficulty of isolating and controlling variables and our (relatively) poor knowledge of the brain, some intriguing work has been done on the subject.

Perhaps the best-known of these works are those concerning how different cultures relate to space and convey directions. In most common languages, we can communicate directions in both absolute and relative ways (egocentric vs geographic), for instance: “head north for two miles, then east for two hundred feet”. We can also say: “take the next left, two rights and then another left”. In the first example, we are talking in absolute terms, in the second we are speaking relative to the person at that time. Generally, when we talk to each other, we use relative terms. We say: “Can you pass the sauce? It’s right in front of you.” We don’t say: “Please pass me the remote, it’s to your east.”

However, there are cultures where the relative right and left don’t exist, everything is in absolutes. They give all directions using cardinal directions. This means that they have to constantly be aware of where they are at all times. Whenever they move around, at the back of their minds they are keeping track of the direction. This discipline gives them what to us would be a supernatural sense of direction. Whether at night, during a cloudy day or in the middle of a building, people from these cultures can unerringly point north. A language particularity, forced a real change in the way someone thinks.

This, of course, does not mean that people from these cultures cannot understand concepts such as behind or in-front, merely that they were never forced to, and this coloured their thinking. Here’s where we enter murky waters and broad generalizations would be dangerous. This merely shows, that under specific circumstances, language seems to influence certain aspect of our way of thinking.

In the past, there have been many attempts at both proving that one’s mother tongue was a vice constraining all thought, and that it was irrelevant and human thought was the same regardless of culture. This is particularly topical right now, when many languages are trying to find ways to add a gender neutral framework, and languages with grammatical genders (like French, Polish, Bantu and many other)s, are coming under renewed scrutiny. At this time, it is unclear whether such grammatical differences affect our social fabric, but most evidence seems to point towards it having a marginal effect at most.

All in all, this would seem an interesting field of study, which can help increase our understanding of our brains and how we process language and speech.


Palabras clave: Cosmo, Language