Written by Vyoma Shah
On a Sunday morning, after a run, as I entered my dorm room, I saw my roommate laughing hard about something she saw on Instagram. Out of curiosity, I asked her what was so funny and she showed me a joke on her phone in her native language Malayalam, one of the many languages spoken in India. I asked her to translate it in English, which she was kind enough to do. She told me the same joke in English and I barely smiled. Looking at me, she immediately said: “Vyoma, the humor got lost in translation. It’s way funnier in Malayalam.”
Coming from a country where there are 270 identified mother tongues and looking at a world which has more than 7000 spoken languages, it makes me wonder to what extent our language influences our lives. Or is it maybe the other way around? Noam Chomsky, a famous American linguist, said: “A language is not just words. It’s culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”
Language is a fundamental part of our cognition and it guides the construction, as well as the interpretation of events. In the past, it was thought that language is just a tool that we use to communicate, just a mere expression of what goes on inside our heads. It was also believed that language is influenced by our environment.
Ole Henrik Magga, a linguist in Norway, studied the Saami language, which is spoken in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. He said that the physical environment leaves a mark on the culture, which in turn further influences language. Due to its geographical location, the Sammi language contains several words for ice, snow, melting, and freezing. Each of these terms varies depending on factors like the quality and quantity of snow, as well as practical needs of people and animals. And just as Sammi has several words for snow, English has multiple words for water bodies, for example river, lake, rain, and brook.
It’s not just nature that influences language, but also man-made objects. Neuroscientists suggest that objects are perceived when one is observing a cluster of properties of an object. This is known as the feature analysis theory of perception. For example, a beak, feathers, and the ability to fly will be perceived as a bird. Now, when it comes to man-made objects, because of innovation and constant change to bring better products in the market, there are unclear boundaries on clusters of properties.Now, when it comes to man-made objects, their influence on language is twofold. On the one hand, constant innovation brings about a constant need for new and more refined terms, which can help us distinguish between the ever-narrowing clusters of properties (for example, a bowl and a tureen are both dishes from which soup is served; the only difference is that one is covered, while the other one is not). On the other hand, these increasingly smaller differences can make it harder for some people to keep track of them, leading to an increased frequency of misnomers, and by extension, to a distortion of boundaries with respect to the clusters of properties (coming back to the soup example, a native English speaker might have no trouble distinguishing between a bowl and a tureen, but a non-native might simply call both of them soup bowls, occasionally leading to small confusions in the kitchen).
However, two linguists, Edward Sapir and his disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf, challenged the idea that it’s only our environment shaping our language and said that our reality in turn is also shaped by language. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the linguistic relativity theory was first developed in 1929 by Sapir and later worked on by Whorf in the 1930s. It states that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality. However, during the early 20th century, this theory was highly criticized and no further research was done until recently. Noam Chomsky, the linguist mentioned above, and now Lera Boroditsky, another linguist, have been advocating for the linguistic relativity theory. This has sparked scientists’ interest into it once again and called for more research into the matter.
We saw that there is an interaction between language and the external world, but now what we are going to see is its influence on our internal world view, on our perception. A study conducted on native Greek and English speakers shows that there are changes in the brain when different colours are shown to different groups. The researchers gave participants a series of circles and squares, and instructed them to press a button only when they saw a square. The shapes randomly switched colors between a light and dark shade of either blue or green, but participants weren’t instructed to focus on the colors. Greeks have two color terms for blue, namely ghalazio and ble, whereas English speakers only have one term for blue. Both groups have only one word for green. Using EEG-recorded brain potentials, scientists observed that visual mismatch negativity, a brain signal that indicates an abrupt change in the visual stimulus, was similar for both shades of blue and green in English participants, signaling that these participants’ brains didn’t register an explicit difference between the shades of the different colors. However, native Greek speakers showed a larger difference in visual mismatch negativity between the two shades of blue compared to the green shades. This study suggests that human perception for color is altered by the terminology. Furthermore, human perception not only changes, but also learns colors alongside new terminology. A study suggests that, as infants, we only differentiate colors in five basic groups: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple, but, as our language learning progresses, we are able to differentiate between more hues.
Differential activation of brain areas caused by categorization in different languages goes beyond just colors. For example, Spanish speakers and English speakers were shown pictures of cups, mugs, and bowls. Participants were asked to press a button every time a bowl appeared on the screen. In English there are two different words for mug and cup, but in Spanish it’s called taza. Both languages have a single word for bowl. The research team found different patterns of activity between all three pairs of stimuli in English-speaking participants, but only between mugs/bowls and cups/bowls, respectively, in the Spanish-speaking ones.
Mila Vulchanova, a professor at Language Acquisition and Language Processing Lab, Norway, says that there is a tight interface between language and perception. This is highly evident in three places: firstly, during early childhood, where object shape plays an important role in the acquisition of object labels and drives vocabulary growth; secondly, when the visual context constrains the way listeners interpret spoken language, like the McGurk effect (this is a perceptual phenomenon that influences the way we hear something while looking at how it’s spoken); thirdly, gestures, which either complement or supplement the verbal message.
The influence of language is reflected not only on perception, but also on personality. Studies by Michèle Koven in 2007 show that learning to operate in a second or foreign language has the ability to affect the behavior of the individual. Yet another study on multilinguals shows that they feel different when they speak in different languages. Participants reported feeling significantly more authentic, more logical, more emotional, and more serious in their first language, with gradually lower values for languages which they had acquired later in life, and in which they felt significantly less proficient. This set of studies provides evidence for something that Lera Boroditsky said: “…when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.”
Another way in which language influences how you think is by forcing you to specify certain types of information. For example, a language spoken in parts of India, called Bengali, is gender neutral in nature. This means they don’t have pronouns like him, her, she or he, whereas another Indian language, Gujarati, is not. This subtle difference forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. Eventually, this turns into an unrecognised habit which ultimately affects our experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories, and orientation in the world.
Language doesn’t only affect one’s personality or perception, but also one’s orientation skills and mathematical abilities. Kuuk Thaayorre, a language spoken in northern Australia, only uses cardinal directions and does not use relative spatial terms such as left and right. For example, if they were to ask you to shift towards your left, they would say to move towards the southwest. Levinson and Haviland, a couple of researchers who studied speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre for over two decades, demonstrated that people who speak languages that rely on absolute directions are better at keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar places.
Numbers are just another part of our language a lot of us and we are usually taught about them at a young age. However, in a small Amazonian community, there is a language called Pirahã, which has no number words at all. This community does not have words like one, seventy or four thousand sixty eight, but they do have words that represent quantities. The Pirahã use hói to describe a small number of objects, hoí to describe a slightly larger number, and baágiso for an even larger number. Experiments conducted by Frank and his team in 2008 showed the impact of a lack of number words on numerical cognition. The lack of number words had a profound and surprising effect on what the Pirahã could do. In a series of experiments, the researchers presented Pirahã participants with some number of spools of thread. Their task was to give the researchers the same number of balloons as the number of spools of thread. When participants lined up the balloons while watching the spools of thread, they did well. But if they had to remember the number without actually counting, for instance, if the spools of thread were dropped into a bucket one at a time, and then the participants had to produce the same number of balloons, they failed. They were, however, able to give an estimate, meaning that if a lot of spools went into the bucket, they produced a lot of balloons and for a small number of spools, a small number of balloons. This result challenges the idea that number is a linguistic universal.
Understanding the immense influence of language on our existence allows us to say that language is not merely a communication tool, but that it is much larger than that. Language shapes one’s perception, personality, and even mathematical abilities. But the bigger question is how this influence translates into other aspects of our societies. We know that it affects, for example, our habits and views of others, and even our legislative policies, but the true depth of this influence remains yet to be explored.
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