Language DOES Shape How I Think… I think

Photo by eSonic, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

To continue in the thread of learning languages– this time without eating– I read this interesting claim in the New York Times Magazine this week: While your native language, or langue maternelle, does not inhibit one’s understanding of the world, it may, shape it in subtle ways.  As Guy Deutscher, author of the article “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”, argues, “If different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”

Is that so?

But before you say, Well of course, every aspect of a culture– including the language– shapes how its members see the world, consider Deutscher’s example: gendered pronouns in European languages such as Spanish, German, and French.

Image from the NYT Magazine article

“A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.”

So what do you think?  Do you think you perhaps see the world with emphasis on certain concepts more than others? What has learning a foreign language done to draw contrasts with the way you see language– and has it made you notice different things about your native tongue?

I know for me, learning the conditionnel and subjuctif tenses in French classes long ago certainly opened my eyes to what was before a merely intuitive sense of conditional and subjective English constructions. It made me much more aware of whether something Had, Would, Could, Should, or Will happen– a more nuanced approach to tense even than English with its many participles.

Learning Chinese, limited though my knowledge still is of the language, has drawn my attention to how little tense matters when dealing with Chinese characters. Verbs do not conjugate by pronoun, gender, or number of subjects; they do not have past, future, or conditional tenses; they remain static, and comfortingly unchanging. 有 (you) = means “to have” in all cases: 我有 Wo you, 你有 ni you, 他們有 ta men you, 一個火車站 yi ge huo che zhan you… (I have, you have, they have, the train station has…)  To indicate tense, mood, or tone, one must use surrounding words to indicate time, place or condition.  This however, makes knowing all of the indicator words VERY important for situating oneself in time.

I never realized how dependent I was on these tense-creating contexts until I was in Chinese class and didn’t know how to say, “What if…?” or, “I hope that someday I can…”  One week in my Chinese class in June, I learned the words for days of the week, months, years, how to explain time passing, describe last week or next month’s plan, and how to add conditional phrases to the stoic present tense verbs.  It was the week that set me free to express what I had been aching to do for so many months: situate today in the context of yesterday, tomorrow, and the rest of my life.

Do you agree with Deutscher?  How does language shape (or not shape) the way YOU think?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Language DOES Shape How I Think… I think

  1. I’m much more conscious of the abundant use of perfect tenses in English since learning they don’t exist or are rarely ever used in other languages. We’re so unconsciously obsessed with an action’s relation to specific points in time for no good reason!

    And in Japanese I’m often much more conscious of the shape and size of things, as the counters attached to each noun depends on certain physical qualities (flat, small, long, mechanical, alive, whatever, the numbers to count each thing are conjugated differently depending on which of about 50 categories it falls into). I’m pretty sure Chinese does this too, right?

  2. Sam shortis

    The distinction made here is crucial! I think language does oblige you to think on certain ways rather than prohibiting you from thinking in others. There was a study I read about in which they asked speakers of different languages to put a sequence of events in order. Some went left to right, some top to bottom, and some, get this, north to south. Speakers of the latter language knew where north was not because their language gave them magic powers but because it obliged them to keep track if they wanted to express themselves.

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