How Languages Shape The Way We Think

Reference & EducationLanguage

  • Author Kaleela Arabic
  • Published March 17, 2019
  • Word count 891

Have you ever asked yourself, "Why do I think the way I do?" Of course, some obvious responses would include your upbringing, your culture and social interactions, and your education, among others. However, did you ever consider that language also influences the way you think? Cognitive psychology studied this aspect of language and how it influences our minds.

Let’s look at an example. You are standing next to a six-year-old boy in an isolated Aboriginal community in Australia called Pormpuraaw. When you ask this little boy to point north, he does so precisely and without hesitation. If you ask a group of teachers to point north, not all of them will know the answer and the ones who think they do end up pointing in several different directions. So why is it that a six-year-old boy in one culture can do something effortlessly, while educated and experienced adults in another culture struggle to do the same? Well, this is because that six-year-old boy was born and raised in a community which does not have the words "left" or "right" in its vocabulary, but instead, they use "north", "south", "east" and "west". This is just an example about how significant the influence of our native language over our thought processes really is.

Language, like culture, is a system we all create and define together, but unlike culture, language is tightly structured. The idea that language might shape thought has often been seen as crazy and irrational. However, a new flurry of cognitive scientific research has caused a shift in consensus and led us to wonder: "Do the languages we speak have an effect on the way we construct our individual perceptions of reality and how we see the world?"

Let’s look at another example. Let’s say you want to tell someone that you saw Uncle Mike on 47th street. In Mian, which is a language spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb they would use would reveal whether the event happened just now, yesterday or at a longer time ago, whereas in Indonesian, it wouldn’t even reveal if it was still going on. In Russian, the verb would reveal your gender, and in Mandarin Chinese, you would have to specify in your word choice for "uncle" whether your uncle is maternal or paternal and whether he is related to you by blood or by marriage because there are many different types of words for all these different types of uncles.

Conversely, while the rules of all those languages seem to add specific information to the content of your sentences, some languages actually remove information altogether. In Piraha, a language spoken in the Amazon, for example, there is no such thing as numerals. Wouldn’t you say that numbers are an essential feature of all languages? These people also have only 3 pronouns, hardly use any words associated with time and color, and past verb conjugations simply don’t exist. However, not having numbers perplexed linguists when they visited this community in the Amazon to test their mathematical abilities. When asked to count from 1 to 10 or asked to count objects, the results fascinated the experts. These people simply could not grasp the concept of numbers. This led them to deduce that people are only capable of constructing thoughts for which they possess actual words, and ultimately, that language is not just a way for us to express our thoughts, but that it actually plays a substantial role in creating them.

Let’s think about the following: All languages are created and molded by the culture of their speakers. You’ve probably heard how welcoming and warm-hearted Middle Easterners are. This is the reason that they actually came up with sentences that properly enunciate that. Some of these sentences have no equivalent in the English language. In Farsi (Persian), the language of Iran, you have a word, t’aarof". The translation of this word is complicated, and we can only describe it is through a combination of words, like extreme humility, extreme grace or extreme politeness. The best way to characterize this word is if we try to visualize the following encounter: If two guys see each other in the street, it will be very common for one to walk up to the other one and say, Mohlesetam!" which means "I am indebted to you!" to which the second guy would respond back, "Chakeretam!" – "I tear my shirt open for you", and this can go on in the same vibe. In Arabic language, if you want to say "Welcome", you’d need to remember to say "ahlan wa sahlan", to which the response would be "nawarti el makan", which means "You shine the place". Learning these common phrases can actually influence a person’s development to be more welcoming, warm hearted and polite.

With the above in mind, we highly advise you to start to learn Arabic. Why? Well, because the people are amazing, the culture is diverse, and Arabic words portray emotions that some languages simply can’t. If you check some common Arabic greetings you will notice that almost all of them invoke protection and love upon you.

We at have compiled a list of articles which would make you fall in love with the Arabic language and culture. Pay us a visit by following the link!


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