Does language influence our lives? ​

by Mario Bonfrisco

Several different languages are spoken every day around the world, having all in common two main functions – expressing thoughts and establishing a social communication. So, it can be said that languages are extremely important in any type of society, from a small African tribe to the most industrialised country.

We usually don’t pay attention to the important role of language, which can be made of sounds, written words or signs, in our every-day life. Imagine a world where you cannot express your thoughts or feelings, not only to other people but even to yourself. Very hard to visualise I guess!

We need to talk, scream, write, sing… in other words, languages allow us “to be ourselves”.

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Given the importance, how does the language we speak may affect our lives?

This question has always been widely discussed, causing a conflict between two schools of thought – linguistic determinism, with Benjamin Lee Whorf as leading figure, and universalism. In the early fifths, Benjamin Lee Whorf formulated the linguistic relativity theory, which suggests that languages do fully affect people’s cognitive system and thus, what an individual think is based on the language that he speaks. On the other hand, universalist believed that the thinking paths across the world are universal and languages don’t have any effects on this[1].

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Recent research has disproven both theories, defining them as very extremists. However, many studies, focused on grammar, have partly supported the linguistic relativity theory, showing how language can actually affect the perception of time, space or colours.

In 2001, Dr Boroditsky conducted an experiment to see how grammar affect the perception of time between English speakers, who commonly perceive temporal events, such as “yesterday” and “tomorrow”, as a horizontal succession (horizontal line), and Mandarin speakers, who instead perceive these events in a vertical way (vertical line). She found that, as expected, Mandarin speakers’ answers were faster when the sentences were shown with a vertical spatial stimulus while English were faster with horizontal ones, hence temporal thoughts are influenced by words habitually used and consequently, there are implications on mental processes such time estimations[2].

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Interestingly, although space seems to have the same characteristic all around the world, the location of an individual or the position of an object it is encoded differently across cultures with different semantic traits. Oh [3] tested the effects on memory of different systems of encoding a motion in space. He found that speakers of language such as English, who use more manner-of-motion verbs, tend to memorise better events of motion rather than Korean speaker, who use far less manner-of-motion verbs.

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Research shows that the perception of colours also is influenced by the language that we speak. In 2007, Winawer et al.[4] tested the probability of colour discrimination, between Russian and English speakers, due to the distinction between light blues (goluboy) and dark blues (siniy) made in the Russian language, which is absent in English. Participants of both groups were shown a range of blues that went from the lightest blue to a darker one; the test consisted in indicating which degree of blue was closer to other two. It was found that Russians were faster in judging two colours when they were shown blues from a different category (one from goluboy and the other from siniy) than they were shown blues from the same category.  In contrast, English speakers’ results did not suggest the presence of a category advantage.

Considering the mentioned studies, and a lot more that have done about this matter, we can easily conclude that languages have actual implications on how we perceive our surrounding.

Do the effects on perceptions influence our behaviour too?

 According to Chen[5], speakers of “futureless” languages such as Mandarin or Russian that grammatically associate present and future (referring at the present and the future with the same tense ) tend to save more and be healthier during their lives than speakers of “futured” languages such as English or French. This is because, without the use of future tenses, futureless speakers feel the future less distant, as well as the lack of precise beliefs about the timing of future rewards, lead to a higher probability of saving (see Figure 1) and avoiding bad habits such smoking (see Table 8). Therefore, speakers’ intertemporal beliefs can influence the behaviour of an entire population.

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In conclusion, research has demonstrated that language is not just a way to express thoughts or interact with others but it can play a powerful role in the everyday life. Evidence shows that affecting perceptions, languages may alter cognitive system processes and thus, how we process and elaborate certain thoughts.

References

[1] Black, M. (1959). Linguistic relativity: the views of Benjamin Lee Whorf. The philosophical review, 68(2), 228-238.

[2] Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought? Mandarin and English speakers’ conception of time. Cognit Psychol, 43(1), 1-22.

[3] Oh, K. (2003). Habitual patterns of language use and thinking for speaking: a Whorfian effect on motion events. University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley.

[4] Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(19), 7780-7785.

[5] Chen, M. K. (2013). The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets. The American Economic Review, 103(2), 690-731.

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