Language – does it describe or create reality?

Last Updated December 14, 2020

Have you ever wondered – while talking to a person who has different views than yours – what makes them think in a given way? Have their opinions been shaped by their ethnic or cultural background, religious beliefs, economic situation, or maybe… the language they speak?

There is no clear-cut answer to the question posed above. It is obvious that our views and opinions are affected by each of the aforementioned factors. However, we would like to take a look at how our perception of the world affects the language we speak.

Theory vs. practice

The theory of linguistic relativity described in the first half of the twentieth century by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf – American linguists and anthropologists, has also been acknowledged by contemporary language researchers. Current research confirms the existence of a relationship between language and the way we think and perceive the world. Lara Boroditsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University, points to some areas which can be affected by linguistic relativity, and have not been discussed in this context so far: time, space, causality of events, gender perception and relationships between people.

TIME

In our mother tongue, there is a clear distinction between the present and the future. What is going to happen is perceived by us in a completely different category than that what has already taken place, whereas the Chinese use the same grammatical forms to talk about both the present and the future. The example presented above can be perceived as a curiosity, but it turns out that language is connected not only with the perception of time, but also with… our ability to save.

An economist Keith Chen has shown in his research that people who use a “timeless” language (e.g. Chinese) are able to save up to 30% more money per year than those whose language distinguished between the present and the future.

This is due to the fact that when we perceive the future as something distant and uncertain, it is more difficult for us to get motivated to put money aside.

SPACE

Lera Broditsky, mentioned above, was researching language in a small Aboriginal community settled in Pormpuraaw, Australia. In their language (called Kuuk Thaayorre), there are no such words as “left” or “right”, but the location of each object is specified using the directions of the world. People from Pormpuraaw have also an extraordinary ability to specify the direction, and thus they have no problems with orientation in any, even unfamiliar, place. Their language somehow forces them to have this skill, which is why people from Pormpuraaw have mastered it to the greatest extent unseen anywhere else.

SPACE-TIME

It turns out that language (or in this case the alphabet) affects our perception of space and time at the same time. What will you do if someone gives you cards with drawings depicting some event and tells you to organize them from the earliest to the latest one? As Polish speaking people you will put them from the left to the right – which would seem to you a natural and the only right way to organize them. You would be surprised to see a Hebrew speaking person putting the cards from the right to the left (in the way the Hebrew alphabet is read). What will a person from Pormpuraaw do? They will first determine the direction which they are currently facing to put the cards from the east to the west. So if they stand facing to the north – they will put the cards from the right to the left, if they are facing to the east, the card starting the sequence will be put several dozen centimeters away from their bodies, and each subsequent card will be placed closer to the participant of the experiment…

CAUSE, ACTION, RESULT

It turns out that language affects not only the way we experience the passage of time or the degree of the development of our spatial intelligence, but also the determination of causality and purposefulness of events.

Another experiment conducted by Lara Boroditksy, mentioned in the previous article, involved speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese. The lexical and grammatical systems they used determined the way they memorized given events and how they evaluated them. English speakers tend to indicate people that perform a given task. Someone talking about “a vase which has been broken” is automatically considered as a person who wants to conceal something – for English speakers it is more natural to specify the person who has broken the vase. In contrast, Spanish or Japanese speakers often omit the subject in the sentence and say that “something has been done”.

This also affects the ability to memorize the details of the event – people who speak different languages pay attention to its different elements. In another experiment, English-speaking people and those speaking German were presented with a video recording showing a woman going towards a car. Those who were describing the situation in German paid attention not only to the activity being performed, but also to its purpose: “the woman is going towards the car”, while in the answers given in English the focus was rather on the activity itself – “the woman is going”.

DWU LANGUAGES, TWO MINDS?

The ability to speak foreign languages can help you find a job or communicate with foreigners when on holidays. But being able to speak two (or more) languages has also another advantage – it is good for… health, as learning foreign languages is a workout for the brain. For this reason, bilingual (or multilingual) people are less likely to suffer from e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, and their minds age later. Research has also shown that people who speak several languages are more open to new experiences and are more tolerant.

These facts confirm the theory that language affects the way we think and perceive the world. Let’s go back to the experiment referred to above, in which German- and English-speaking people were describing the video recording with a woman going towards her car – the very same experiment was performed among people speaking both languages concerned. The perspective through which those people were describing the situation in the recording varied depending on the language in which they were describing it. Already centuries ago, Charlemagne said that “to have a second language is to possess a second soul”. Apparently, this theory has finally been confirmed.

Does the language we speak affect the way we think or the reality that surrounds us affect the language we speak? We have presented you with evidence of how language creates our consciousness, but these two elements do overlap with each other. Learning a new language, we adopt some new customs and express our thoughts and perceive the world in a different way. Thus, language gives meaning to various phenomena, and the conditions in which it is used have a great impact on the way we use it.

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