Can language shape the way we think? Is it possible that the language causes certain habits and also certain perceptions on the reality, time, and space. It turns out that it’s possible.
Lera Boroditsky, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology.has conducted several studies on language and thought. Her work has provided new insights on the controversial question of whether the languages we speak shape the way we think . She has discovered empirical examples of cross-linguistic differences in thought and perception that stem from syntactic or lexical differences between languages.
For example language shapes our orientation skill. Unlike English, the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in Pormpuraaw does not use relative spatial terms such as left and right. Rather Kuuk Thaayorre speakers talk in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west, and so forth). For example, they say “the cup is southeast of the plate” or “the boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother.” As a result they have exceptional orientation skills.Another groundbreaking work conducted by Stephen C.Levinson and John B. Haviland has demonstrated that people who speak languages that rely on absolute directions are remarkably good at keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings.
Language shapes the way we think of time.English speakers consider the future to be “ahead” and the past “behind.” English speakers unconsciously sway their bodies forward when thinking about the future and back when thinking about the past.In Aymara, a language spoken in the Andes, the past is said to be in front and the future behind. And the Aymara peakers’ body language matches their way of talking: Aymara gesture in front of them when talking about the past and behind them when discussing the future
Language can even affect how quickly children figure out whether they are male or female. In 1983 Alexander Guiora of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor compared three groups of kids growing up with Hebrew, English or Finnish as their native language. Hebrew marks gender prolifically (even the word “you” is different depending on gender), Finnish has no gender marking and English is somewhere in between. Accordingly, children growing up in a Hebrew-speaking environment figure out their own gender about a year earlier than Finnish-speaking children; English-speaking kids fall in the middle.
After finding out about this theory, I thought about the instances where the language could have effected any kind of habit of a particular group of people. I used to learn German a few years ago, and one thing that is typical to German is that it uses present tense a lot. German speaker use present tense when speaking about future and in the cases when English speakers use present perfect. So, maybe that’s why Germans are always on time. Maybe this habit can be explained through the particular trait that their language has.