Humans are able to communicate their ideas across space and a time dimension while having the ability to spread knowledge across their mind. Interesting, isn’t it? Yes, but it is not as complicated as it sounds: we do all of it using our language. Language is a unique gift on which our entire experience is based on and our life without it would be difficult to imagine: could we still have a social life, an education, a job and be able to start a family? It is difficult to picture it but still most of the time we take it for granted, using it only as a mere tool for expressing our thoughts.
But if the language is so fundamental for our life experience, does it have an impact on how we see the world, the way we think and the way we live? And on top of this, what about people who speak different languages, do they think the same way as we do? Do polyglots think differently while speaking different languages? Does learning new languages change the way you think?
A good starting point for the analysis of this fascinating topic is to go through the differences among various languages across the world. It might seem a frivolous aspect but in reality, it can actually have a deep influence into people subconscious: the grammatical gender. In Spanish, or in Italian and in other Romance languages, nouns are always masculine or feminine. In others, nouns are categorized in many more genders: in Australian Aboriginal languages, sixteen genders are existent. In English there are none. Languages may present expressions and metaphors that differ with others, making us understand how in deep this might change the way we think: English speakers use horizontal (from a spatial point of view) metaphors when relating to time like “The future ahead of us” or “Half an hour ahead of time” while, for example, Chinese speakers refer to time with vertical spatial expression as “Up Month” meaning next month or the Chinese world corresponding in English in “above” meaning the future. This happens because they take as reference to the sun.
While English time is mostly expressed in length terms, other languages such as Spanish and Greek allude more to an amount of time: in English there are terms such as “long” for expressing a duration of a meeting, while in these languages mentioned above, we will find words describing an amount of time as “much” or “big” or “little”. “Countable” nouns like “box” are present in English and can be transformed into plural, “boxes” in Japanese there is a general classifier such as “a cup of” that is used for all nouns. Considering this, we think that these nuances and different characteristics of languages may impact people as they demand different things to think about while communicating.
Does this mean that the speakers think differently about the world?
People have been questioning it for years and the answer is still complicated in part because there is more than the language itself involved in our communication and thought, it still plays a big role in it, but there also is culture, habits, and tradition that shape what we think and the way we communicate and live. But we can say that the differences among languages and the structure they require can, in deep, affect how we see the world due to their grammatical composition and syntax requirements.
Can learning a different language change the way I think?
Not really, learning a language is very different from growing with your own language. But a new language implies a big difference, it is far from your mother tongue and this may give you more insight into the culture and the lifestyle of other population, exercising and broadening your mind and the way you used to think. In conclusion, is it possible to affirm that there is an influence of our language on what we can think about but the main impact is given by how we break up the reality into categories and label them, and this is probably greatly influenced by our culture.