This post was written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, where students are asked to explore a key finding in psychology. This is a compulsory course for students studying BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science and as an outside option, with permission, on other LSE programmes.
(This course is also available as a summer-school programme, IR110: Foundations of Psychological Science available here.)
The language we speak affects the way we think, from space, time, to numbers – we might be smarter when we think in some languages.
Imagine a tree walking around a classroom while reciting a poem. I’m injecting a strange, new idea in to your mind at this moment, and I bet you haven’t thought in this way before. But I’ve just made you do it, through language.
It isn’t new that the language we speak represents what we think, but what about the way we think? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis – is the idea that the language we speak influences the way we think. We have roughly 7,000 spoken languages across the globe today. Obviously, different languages influence us to think differently. But are there ways in which language influences how we think and actually makes us smarter?
Now, look at the picture above, and tell me where you left your phone. The answer in your mind is probably that they are to the left of your glasses. This is an everyday example of how we code spatial location. Interestingly enough, if you ask the same question to people in other cultures, you’d probably get different answers. In a faraway Aboriginal community in Australia, people would respond with something like this: “The phone is in the northwest”. The indigenous language there – Guugu Yimithirr – doesn’t have relative directions “left” or “right”. Instead, the indigenous people use absolute directions “north”, “east”, “south” and “west”. (Boroditsky, 2011) Or in Belize and Mexico, an appropriate answer to my question might be, “The phone is at the nose of the glasses”. Speakers of Mopan (Belize) or Totonac (Mexico) don’t use reference for spatial location in terms of one’s self or other external coordinate systems – we call it an intrinsic frame of reference. (Majid, Bowerman, Kita, Haun, & Levinson, 2004).
The idea of absolute and intrinsic reference frames might seem bizarre to speakers of English like you and me; it’s just too uncommon. However, we might actually want to start relying on absolute directions for spatial location. Why? This is because a study showed that speakers of languages like Guugu Yimithirr are better at staying oriented. When they were asked to arrange sets of photos in correct temporal order, they did it from east to west, even when they were not told which direction they were facing. When they faced south, they could do it from left to right, and when they faced north, they could do it from right to left (Boroditsky, 2011). Isn’t it fascinating?
They can know exactly where they are, even in places they haven’t been to before, as a result of this constant linguistic training.
Apart from space, the way we conceptualise time is also different across languages. In the above-mentioned study, speakers of other languages like English and Hebrew were also asked to arrange sets of photos in correct temporal order. Turns out, English speakers did it from left to right while Hebrew speakers did it from right to left. This is because English is written from left to right whereas Hebrew is written from right to left. (Boroditsky, 2011) Many other languages have different ways to describe time, which affects the way their speakers understand time.
As a Cantonese speaker myself, I say last year “seung6 nin2” which means “up year” and next year “ha6 nin2” which means “down year” as if time were “vertical”. Really, the thought about speaking time “vertically” might freak you out; it just doesn’t make sense. But you might want to start having this “vertical” concept of time in mind. Why? This is because in another study where how English and Mandarin speakers talk about time differently suggests that Mandarin speakers are better at recalling the temporal order of months than English speakers. When they were asked whether March comes earlier than April, Mandarin speakers responded more quickly than English speakers (Boroditsky, Fuhrman, & Mccormick, 2011). Isn’t it amazing? Mandarin speakers can recall the order of time better than English speakers.
Mandarin speakers speak about time in a “vertical” sense whereas English speakers speak about it in a “horizontal” sense.
In addition to space and time, the language we speak may also affect our mathematical capability at an early age. Take “99” as an example. Can you write down the number name of “99”? Well, in English, we could give “ninety-nine” in a split second as we link the numeral to its number name almost intuitively. However, it might take a longer time to generate the answer for speakers of some other languages, like French and Danish. This is because today we use the universal decimal numeral system, in which each number is expressed in base 10 by arranging 0 to 9 into each digit. The conventions used in these languages though, are often complicated as they don’t reflect the structure of this numeral system. In French, “99” is “quatre-vingt-dix-neuf” which means “four-twenty-ten-nine”. And in Danish, “99” is “nioghalvfems” where “ni” means “nine” and “halvfems” means “four and a half twenties”. In contrast, Mandarin has a much straightforward relationship between the tens and the units. “99” is expressed as “jiǔ-shí-jiǔ”, which refers to “nine-ten-nine”. Speakers of other East Asian languages like Japanese and Korean count in similar ways too, by adding up smaller numbers to form larger numbers.
Of course, since the “East Asian” counting system has a much more “transparent” and consistent connection between numerals and their number names, it isn’t surprising to see a study proving children who count in East Asian languages may have a better understanding of the decimal numeral system. When second-grade students were asked to represent numbers like 42 using blocks of tens and units, students from Japan or Korea were more likely to use four blocks of ten and two blocks of units than students from the US, France or Sweden (Miura, Okamoto, Kim, Steere, & Al, 1993). We can see that the languages the children speak may have an impact on their early mental representation of numbers. As a trilingual speaker of Mandarin, Cantonese and English myself, it is true – I find it easier to process numbers using the “East Asian” style rather than the “English” style too.
• TED talk, above, by Lera Boroditsky – “How language shapes the way we think”
• Book by Guy Deutscher – Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
• Why you might be counting in the wrong language – BBC
• How Language Shapes Thought – Scientific American
• Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? – Cognition
• Can language restructure cognition? The case for space – Trends in Cognitive Sciences
• First graders cognitive representation of number and understanding of place value: Cross-national comparisons: France, Japan, Korea, Sweden, and the United States. – Journal of Educational Psychology