by Yana Schottenstein
The great literary critic George Steiner once said: “When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world.”
We have known for a long time that different cultures foster different perspectives and ideologies on the world around us. Culture is made up of rich histories, traditions, beliefs and of course, language. Incredibly, the language you speak can actually affect how you perceive the world, because each language is full of unique logical rules and syntax.
As we use language every day, these sequences of linguistic logic follow us around in our day-to-day life, forming a “habit of mind”. For example, German speakers tend to see the big picture, and the Kuuk Thaayorre Aboriginal Australians navigate the world around them according to cardinal directions.
Here are just a few languages of the world, and how they affect us through sheer habit of mind.
In the small Aboriginal community of northern Australia, the Kuuk Thaayorre use cardinal navigation frequently in their language, such as ‘north’, ‘east’, ‘west’ and ‘south’. A common Kuuk Thaayorre greeting is “Where are you going?” A normal response might be, “Southeast, in the middle distance,” or essentially the direction the subject is facing.
Because cardinal directions are so incorporated into the Kuuk Thaayorre people’s language, native speakers have a conditioned navigational sense of direction. Even when entering a new town, someone whose mother tongue is Kuuk Thaayorre will have a better sense of direction because they are so accustomed to using cardinal navigation in their daily speech!
Language can affect the way we visually see the world, down to the precise shades of a color. In Russian, there is not just one word for the color ‘blue’ – the Russian language has two words, “голубо́й” (goluboy) meaning light blue, and “си́ний” (siniy) meaning dark blue. Because of this simple distinction for two shades of blue, in a language experiment, Russian speakers were quicker to tell a light shade of blue apart from a dark shade of blue.
Incredibly, this data shows that the language we speak can have a real impact on the way humans process colors and perceive visual information from the world around us.
In the Chinese language, verbs are used in speech the same way, regardless if an event happened in the past, present or future. This is what is called a ‘futureless language’. Economist Keith Chen hypothesized that speakers of a futureless language are more likely to save money and be more health-conscious in their decision making process.
According to Chen, this is because in Chinese, where there is no distinction between the present and the future, native speakers are more mindful of how their current action influences their future consequences. When Chinese speakers make no linguistic distinction between the past, present and future tense of an action, this logic follows into a habit of decision making.
In a linguistic study by Lancaster University, researchers found that German speakers would view an action in relation to that action’s end goal. In the experiment, a video showed a woman walking in a parking lot. Where native English speakers simply described the scene as “A woman is walking”, native German speakers would also include the goal of that action, saying something like “A woman walks toward her car.”
In the German language, there is no feature to describe an event as ongoing, the way that English-speakers can tack on ‘—ing’ to a verb. Because of this, German speakers tend to include the big picture of an action, and use more contextual clues.
Whether you speak Japanese or Spanish, French or Arabic, language is an amazing tool that we can use to shape the world around us. Each language creates its own logic that, through habit of mind, we apply to our own day-to-day lives. Even for bilingual or multilingual speakers, shifting between languages can subtly change the way you perceive the world around you. Every language is complex in its own way, and this is why learning different languages can be so exciting, challenging and rewarding!
Yana Schottenstein, Founder of Access 2 Interpreters, contributed content to this article. Access 2 Interpreters is a leading translation and interpretation company in Columbus.