Linguists have historically been obsessed with understanding how the language of our thoughts can shape the way we think. The commonly accepted assumption is that language is the structure that holds the content of our thoughts; as if language was a series of vases differing in shape and size, and our thoughts were the fluid that is contained in those vases. Quite a simple metaphor, but is it truly the way our brain works?
Can we speak more than one mother tongue?
Mother tongue, native language or first language are interchangeable terms for a similar concept, the language(s) we were exposed to and learned to speak when children. When a child has been exposed to more than one language at a young age, and they are able to speak them fluently as adults, we call those people: lucky.
Based on the popular myth that languages shape thought, speakers of more than one mother tongue would be considered to have above average intelligence, given that they would be able to access two (or more) different structures of thought, or ways of conceiving reality.
Acquiring a mother tongue or native language is a process that involves learning to use language during a specific time in the development process of a child, called critical period. Cognitive Psychology has found that the critical period is a stage during which we are capable of developing a specific ability; after that stage, learning said skill becomes increasingly difficult.
What is the theory behind language shaping thought?
In more technical terms, the idea many linguists advocate for is that differences between the structures of different languages shape how their speakers perceive and conceptualize the world. Specifically, it was Benjamin Lee Whorf who first claimed this in 1940. This claim implies that, along with enabling us to think, language can also restrict the type of thoughts we are capable of having.
Based on this thesis, if you were a speaker of language X, for example, and that language did not have a word for “time”, you would not be able to understand the notion. As a result, according to Whorf, by learning to think in a specific language a person would be restricted in their understanding to the number of words available in that language’s dictionary. The cognitive processes involved in understanding and thinking of specific aspects of reality would be limited.
Whorf’s ideas, although lacking scientific evidence, became widely accepted. This resulted in a biased preconception of certain cultures as being limited in their understanding of the world.
Does language restrict thought and perception?
Linguist Roman Jakobson conducted research in this field in the 1970’s. His work argued that languages are different from each other in what they force us to think about, but not in what they allow us to think about. For instance, the fact that there isn’t a specific word for “commute” in the Spanish language does not mean that native Spanish speakers cannot conceive the idea of transporting themselves to work, because that is “unthinkable” to them. They simply do not have the habit of thinking about it as a way of transportation different from any other, but Spanish speakers are perfectly capable of understanding the notion when they are confronted with it.
How does this happen? Psychologists, particularly cognitive psychologists, have conducted enough research to prove that this comes about through habit. By regularly being exposed to several different names for “snow”, for instance, speakers of Arctic languages -such as Inuit- need to think of snow as a multi-fold category. They are then compelled to pay attention to details in their environment, to consider those details when speaking and, thus, to think about their reality in a specific manner, unique to their language.
This difference is important, because it contradicts the ethnocentric ideas based on Whorf’s theory of language restricting understanding. The fact that we have a habit of viewing reality in a particular way is no justification to claim that other cultures are unable to understand Western thought. In fact, it is quite the opposite; language places no limitations in what we are allowed to and capable of thinking. There is no point in categorizing which languages are better than others; responsibility is back on the language user.
So how does language affect who we are?
Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, who had over 10 million views on her 2017 TedTalk on this subject, has reopened this debate and uses simple examples and research evidence to support her claim that language does, in fact, shape the way we think. If there are cultures where space is only spoken of in terms of cardinal points and others where there aren’t any words for numbers, then we can safely say that languages can create different “cognitive universes”. The wonderful side of linguistic diversity, she summarizes, is that it proves how flexible and resourceful the human mind is.
With 7000 languages in the world and a similar number of cognitive universes, the claim that language can shape our thinking is, hence, quite true. But in order to fully understand the complexity and depth of this claim, we need to consider the incommensurability of language and the human mind. Language differences open realms of meaning and cognitive richness that can teach us a great deal about the limitless possibilities of our minds.
Deutscher, Guy (2010) “Does language shape how you think?” New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html