How Language Influences The Way We View The World
New cognitive research shows how the structure of our communications can impact perception.
A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal tackles the question of whether language influences culture, and how we think – citing cognitive research into the subject, and numerous examples from various languages and nations. At the expense of oversimplifying, some of the key observations we picked out include:Languages shape how we view space and time: for example, if we arrange time from east to west or north to south, or if we view the future as moving forward or moving backward. Languages also shape how we understand causality: our native tongue may affect eyewitness accounts of who was responsible for accidental vs. international events – and even our interpretation of whether Justin Timberlake was responsible for Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ – or if the wardrobe broke on its own. Patterns in language have been shown to shape our visual discrimination of color shades, and even of scents. Studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition demonstrate the causal role of language: if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, it changes how they think or perceive a situation, as well. If you take away people’s ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically. Language skills are even needed to count. This new research demonstrates that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts and perceptions we express. The structures that exist in our languages shape how we construct reality, and our human nature. A next step of this cognitive research is to evaluate and understand the mechanisms through which languages help us construct our incredibly complex knowledge systems.
The observations and findings of this research may help us better understand differences in global perceptions, consumer articulations and how a story is told, with implications for everyone from marketers to artists, educators to journalists.