Does Your Language Affect the Way You Think?

Written by guest contributor Ted Meyer

Have you ever felt as though you don’t have the words for the current situation? Or have you ever had a deep, gut feeling, whose significance is clear to you but which you cannot quite express?

If you’ve felt this way, you’re not the first. Expressing thought is one of the fundamental facets of cognition, and the human struggle to adequately represent experience is what first gave rise to communication and language. Even though language is now well-established, all people still go through a frustrating learning process in early childhood. And even in today’s interconnected world, language, a product of experience and culture, still has a big role in shaping the way a person thinks.

Some of these ways are fairly obvious. Taking gender as an example, it is very easy to find major differences between languages. In Spanish and many other languages, every noun is gendered, down to professions (profesor vs. profesora). English has gendered professions and a largely gendered language, but it doesn’t assign gender to many nouns. Then, there are languages (like Japanese, Finnish, and Bengali) that have no gender assignment at all, relying instead on context and other words to get the point across.

Human development in relative isolation can also lead to a lack of concepts which most of us would consider fundamental. In northwestern Australia, an aboriginal community at a place called Pormpuraaw has words for north and south, but no word for left and right - instead, they use the words for northeast or northwest to indicate direction, which works just as well.

Some of the ways in which this occurs are more frivolous. When I traveled to Germany and started learning German, I was immediately taken with the way that German words function. We’re all familiar with compound words (pan+cake, for example), but German is chock-full of compound words, all adding up to express more complex ideas. One of my favorite German words was the term for a bounty hunter. In German, the term is “Kopfgeldjäger.” Kopf (head) + geld (money) + jäger (hunter) – three individual words adding up to a more complex idea. The takeaway? Germans are accustomed to compound words, as per the language with which they grew up.

Another well-known example is “Schadenfreude” – it basically means “sadness+joy,” but it signifies the idea of taking vindictive pleasure in another person’s misfortune. All humans have some familiarity with that feeling, but in English, I can’t express it much more clearly than, “taking vindictive pleasure in another person’s misfortune.” In German, however, you can just say “Schadenfreude” and people will know exactly what you mean.

This German use of the word “Schadenfreude” gets at an important point about languages and emotions. Emotions, as we all know, are subtle and spurious - they are difficult to describe and even harder to define. Even harder is defining them with any precision; ask centuries of poets how best to describe love and you’ll hear thousands of different answers echoing through the ages. The complexity of the human emotional experience has always stymied languages. No language is best at expressing emotion than another, but the German “Schadenfreude” alone shows that some languages have covered emotional ideas others haven’t.

So what do we draw from all this? Does this mean that German speakers have a more vindictive mindset than Americans because they have the word “Schadenfreude?”

I’m joking, of course, but it’s an interesting question. Linguistics scholars have long debated the degree to which people who speak different languages think differently, but mounting evidence has shown that indeed, language can have enormous effects on the character of one’s cognition, if not cognitive ability itself. Keith Chen, an economist, recently conducted a study querying whether or not language has any impact on economic decisions. His research indicated that indeed, language does play an important role. Chen’s study singled out the difference between English and Chinese. Chinese has no future tense, using the same tense to describe past, present and future, and Chen’s study found that speakers of “futureless” languages like Chinese are more likely to report having saved money than “futured” speakers do. Obligatorily for these languages, the future is now.

To be clear, no one language is “better” or “worse” than others. But it is also clear that languages emote and express differently than each other. Therefore, learning another language can make a person more expressive, and may even clarify aspects of the human experience that have felt muddled or ineffable before. These are fantastic advantages, and with great teachers and customizable schedules available at Verbling, what have you got to lose?



About the author:

Ted Meyer is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. He hails from Minnesota, went to college in Ohio and has lived in India and Berlin. Ted's latest language is Dothraki.

February 4, 2016
Mi vida antes del Covid- 19 (IMPERFECTO) A-2
Profile Picture
Alejandra Santiago
August 7, 2020
Profile Picture
Abby H
August 7, 2020
The Origins of popular English Idioms
Profile Picture
Jen Mc Monagle
August 7, 2020