Does the language we speak affect how we think?

Keith Chen, behavioral economist, speaks at TEDGlobal 2012 on Thursday, June 28, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Keith Chen, behavioral economist, speaks at TEDGlobal 2012 on Thursday, June 28, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

If you speak a language that doesn’t mark the future tense, are you less likely to think of the long term consequences of your actions? If you speak a language that assigns gender to inanimate objects, do you also ascribe gender-stereotypical qualities to those objects?  Can the way a language encodes spatial relationships lead to a superior directional sense in its speakers?  Recent research on questions such as these has revived an ages-old debate: how do the properties of the language we speak affect how we think?

The debate dates back to Plato, but since the 1930s, it has been most widely associated with the American linguists Edward Sapir and, his student, Benjamin Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its strongest form states that language determines how we think. While this version of the hypothesis has been discredited, in recent decades, ideas compatible with its weaker formulation – language influences how we think -are finding new support.

We’re going to leave it up to you to decide for yourself, but here are some of the most intriguing claims put out on the topic in recent years:

1) Can using the future tense affect your savings and health?

Behavioral economist, Keith Chen, has made quite a stir with his research on the effect of future tense marking in a language and the future-oriented behaviors of people who speak it. He finds that speakers of languages like French, which has a dedicated verb form for the future tense (for instance, Demain j’irai chez le médecin) are more future-oriented than speakers of a language like German, which uses the same verb to talk about going to the doctor now and going to the doctor tomorrow – Morgen gehe ich zum Doktor.  What does that mean for French speakers? He finds that future-oriented people are better savers, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese.  Yikes! You might be wondering if English is one of those future tense marking languages. In fact, it’s somewhere in the middle between German and French, but he still classifies it as a strong future-time-reference language. (Phew!) He has a TED talk that gives you a nice introduction to his research.

If in the end you’re still skeptical, you might enjoy reading Geoffrey Pullum’s critique on Language Log.

2) Does using gender-specific language lead to sexist thought?

Rebecca Bigler, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, researches how the use of gendered language (like shegirls, and men) can lead to sexist attitudes.  In one experiment, she asked one group of teachers to use gendered labels to sort the students in their class (e.g. girls were put on one side of the room with pink name labels while boys were on the other side with blue name labels) while another group of teachers were asked to not use gendered language and to not sort their students by gender.  After 4 weeks, the students in the gender-sorted classrooms were more likely to have developed gender stereotypes, such as saying that only men can do certain jobs and only women can take care of children. She concludes that gender-specific language primes us to have sexist attitudes.  She advocates the use of gender-neutral language, like a new non-gender-specific pronoun ze in English.  If you’re interested in the topic, you can read this recent blog post on language and gender on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog Lingua Franca.

3) Does grammatical gender influence how we think about objects? 

Lera Boroditsky, Associate Professor at UCSD, is a leading voice in research on the effects of language on cognition. One of the most intriguing findings in her research has to do with how grammatical gender affects thought. Grammatical gender meaning the gender assigned to objects which have no biological sex, e.g. for instance, in Spanish, the moon la luna is feminine but in German, the same word, der Mond, is masculine. She found that the grammatical gender of objects influenced the way people described objects and rating the similarity of objects to people of the same gender. You can read her more detailed summary of the recent findings on this issue in Scientific American here.

4) Can the language we speak make us better at skills such as navigation and identifying musical tone?

From where you’re sitting right now, which direction is north? If you couldn’t answer that without peeking out the window to use the sun as a guide or looking at your cell phone, you’re a pretty normal English speaker. On the other hand, speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre a language spoken in Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal community on the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula, would have had no problem, even if they were in an unfamiliar place without any obvious cues like the sun. Speakers of this language use what are called ‘cardinal’ spatial terms (e.g. north, south, east, west) to describe all kinds of spatial relationships.  While in English, you might tell someone to head north on Highway 1, you would never tell someone to sit on the north side of a table (unless you were quizzing someone who just received a compass for Christmas). In Kuuk Thaayorre, however, that is exactly what you would do. This gives its speakers an uncannily good sense of direction, and also affects how they think about time.

Diana Deutsch, a professor at UCSD, has found that musicians who speak Mandarin, a language in which tone can change the meaning of a word, are more likely than comparable English speaking musicians to have perfect pitch.

So far we haven’t mentioned what this means for second language speakers, which might be of interest to those of you studying a new language. There is a whole other realm of research focused on this topic, which we’ll cover in a future blog post.

Post on the forum under the Linguists Corner if you have thoughts, questions or commentary on this topic. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Image credit: TG12_42470_D41_1129_1920 by TED Conference via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.