By Jasmine Lim
You won’t usually think about this, but we think in a language.
For most, that language is most likely their mother tongue. For others, it is the language that they grew up with (that’s why non-English people can be native English speakers).
The language we use when we think influences the way we perceive the world. Literary critic, George Steiner, describes this relationship as a mirror. “It reflects the way people think, the way they see the world, and the way they interact with each other.” Here, we talk a little bit about the beauty of language.
Imagine a racoon with pink fur, relaxing by a swimming pool on a sunbed. You are now thinking of this because you just read it in the language, you’re familiar with.
There are more than seven thousand spoken languages today and they are all unique in their sounds, vocabularies, and structures. Take the Guugu Yimithirr people (also known as Gugu Badhun). They are an Australian Aboriginal community that does not use words like “left” and “right”. They only use cardinal directions – north, south, east and west – and they use it for everything; even to pass the salt! By having cardinal directions in their everyday language, they have developed an exceptional sense of orientation, no matter where they are. For the rest of the world who uses “left” and “right”, we wouldn’t know where north-north-west is without a GPS. But a toddler in the Guugu Yimithirr tribe could point it out to you in a heartbeat.
Differing in language doesn’t only give people different levels of understanding directions, but it also changes the way people see time.
Languages such as English, Malay, Spanish, and German are written from left to right. Similarly, that is how speakers of these languages view time. Ask a German speaker to draw a timeline and they will do it from left to right. However, ask an Arabic or Hebrew speaker and they will write from right to left. Just like their respective languages.
Going back to the Guugu Yimithirr people, how would they view time? Depending on where they are facing! For them, time is locked onto the landscape they inhabit. So, depending on the direction they’re facing, time can move toward them or away from them. Imagine that.
Another instance where language mirrors culture: counting. Yes, we have a global standardized system for counting. But there are languages that do not have numbers, such as Pirahã, an Amazonian language spoken by the Pirahã people in Brazil. Instead, what they use to quantify things are “few” and “many”, which also means that they do not have a fixed method for quantifying anything. This means they won’t understand when we tell them that we have 228,450 known species in the ocean, while about 2 million more are still unknown.
Even within counting, different languages count in different ways. In English, we’ve got “eleven”, “twelve”, “thirteen”, “fifty-four”, and so on. In Chinese, the number 74, literally translated to English, is “seven ten four”. This makes sense when we think about the Chinese abacus where the upper layer represents tens, hundreds, thousands, etc.
Having number words in a language means more than we realise – we are opened up to a world of mathematics. For the Pirahã people, for example, they are stripped of the privilege to learn mathematics. Without mathematics, the ability to build infrastructures and make certain lifestyle advancements can be severely limited.
Here’s another aspect of a language that has significant consequences: describing events. Different languages pay attention to different things. Researcher Lera Boroditsky and her team showed the same accident to English speakers and Spanish speakers. They found that the English speakers remembered the culprit of the crime more than the Spanish speakers. Rather than remembering who caused the accident, Spanish speakers mainly remembered that the scene was an accident.
This means that two different people who witnessed the same scene can have very different views, based on the language they speak. And this has substantial implications on eyewitness testimonies, which has further implications on the level of punishment ordered by the courts. Take Spanish speakers, for example, after watching the same accident scene as the English speakers, they would say that “the vase broke” instead of remembering who broke the vase.
We’ve just gone through how languages differ in terms of culture, directions, counting and describing events… on the surface. There is still ongoing research on how language affects and influences our lives. As the only creatures who have languages to learn, try learning a language you are interested in today!
If one language affects a person’s life this much on so many different levels, what happens if you know more than one language?