The relationship between language and thought
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What is the relationship between language and thought? Do we need language to be able to think? Or was our thinking there first and is language a “translation” of what we think?
Language and thought exist naturally side by side and influence each other in turn. But there is more to it than that. American professor Lera Boroditsky’s research has shown that the language we speak also determines how we perceive things. Our language determines what we see.
The “guilt question”
English speakers, for example, tend to express things in terms of actors carrying out actions - we see this in constructions such as "Jan has broken the cup", in which whether or not this has been done intentionally is irrelevant. In contrast, in Spanish or Japanese, for example, the person who has broken the cup is not mentioned if it happened by accident. The expression used for this would translate roughly to "The cup has broken itself." (Se rompío la taza.)
Hence, in one language, the “guilt question” is relevant; in another, it is not. Boroditsky’s research has demonstrated that this also means that the speakers of these three languages perceive events differently.
In the aforementioned study, English, Spanish and Japanese-speaking participants watched film clips in which two men were breaking cups and eggs and popping balloons. For each event, the participants were asked what they had seen. The results corresponded to the linguistic patterns of the languages mentioned.
Our language determines what we see.
The participants from all three language backgrounds described the intentional actions of the men in the clips by saying things like "He made the balloon pop", and they all remembered equally well who had carried out the intentional actions. There were striking differences, however, when it came to the unintentional actions, the accidents.
Spanish and Japanese-speaking participants remembered less well whose action had caused the breaking or popping. Not because their memory or perception was inferior, but because when actions are carried out deliberately, their languages indicate who performed the action through the use of certain vocabulary.
The concept of “left” and “right”
It is interesting to note that two-thirds of all languages spoken do not have the concepts of “left” and “right”, but rather compass directions. People say, for example, "There’s a fly on your south-western leg." At sports matches, they say, "Run east of the goal, fake to north-south and then run north-west!"
One study demonstrated that in communities where languages do not include the concept of “left” and “right”, even small children have an exceptionally good sense of direction and navigation.
Indonesian verbs have no tenses (past, present or future). In contrast, Dutch and English do. We say: "I’m going to cook", "I’m cooking", "I cooked" or "I’ve cooked." In relation to this, Boroditsky showed the following three pictures to a group of Indonesian-speaking participants:
She wondered how the participants would perceive them coming from a language background in which tenses are not important. Could it be that they would not perceive a time lapse between the three pictures?
Not only did the group use the same description for all three pictures - "the man kicks the ball away" - but they also stated that there were no differences between them.
A broader view
If the language we speak indeed has such an impact on what we see, as Lera Boroditsky’s research suggests, learning a new language can vastly broaden our view of the world!
Author Marjolein Kuperus is a lawyer, philosopher and writer. She works as a Dutch language trainer at Language Institute Regina Coeli and guest lecturer in philosophy, as well as a writing teacher for lawyers in particular. Do you want to know more about the Regina Coeli method? Contact Language Institute Regina Coeli for more information!