Do the languages we speak shape the way we think?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Languages across the world differ from each other. Does this also mean that speakers of different languages think differently?


“German speakers are likely to imagine where this woman is going while English speakers might focus on her journey, but bilinguals may pay attention to both.” Picture taken by Scholastica (License: CC By-ND 2.0)

For a long time, researchers have tried to find an answer on whether language might shape thoughts. To this very day, this is a topic of hot debate. For example, do English, Indonesian, Russian, and Turkish speakers observe and remember their experiences differently because of certain differences between their languages?

Thinking for speaking hypothesis
The thinking for speaking hypothesis is concerned with possible effects of language on the way we think. Let’s look at the picture above as an example of an event What you can see is a woman walking over a grassy hill towards a mountain. When describing an event, German speakers tend to specify from where the woman is coming (the starting point) and to where she is going (the end point), but English speakers often leave out such end points and focus on what is being done (i.e., the action, in this case it is walking). So does this linguistic difference influence how German and English speakers perceive events? Researchers used a technique called eye-tracking to measure eye-gaze (e.g., where they look and for how long they look) and showed that indeed German speakers look mainly at the hills (the end point) and English speakers at the feet (the action) of the woman.

Two minds in one person
What about someone who speaks more than one language? Does speaking a second language from an early age also change the way you see the world? Taking our English and German speakers again, do German-English bilinguals pay attention to both the goal and the action (as illustrated in the picture above)? There is evidence among others from the researchers at Lancaster University that a second language can play an important, unconscious role in shaping the way we think. In the case of our English-German bilinguals, they look more at the endpoints to describe a scene in German, and more on the action to describe a scene in English. This is evidence that they are capable of applying both perspectives – the action and the end point – depending on which language is in use, which suggests that their thinking is relatively more flexible than a German or English monolingual, that they get the best of both worlds!

What we have seen so far is that language plays an important role in our experiences, it influences the way think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.

What about bimodal bilinguals?
Now, what if the bilingual individual speaks a signed and a spoken language (see blog on bimodal bilinguals), how would he or she see the world? Since we now know that the spoken languages we speak can play an important role on the way we see the world, might this also apply to a bimodal bilingual in the same way? In my research I will try to answer this question. So stay tuned for more!

More information
Article in the magazine Bable

This blog has been written by Francie Manhardt. She is a PhD student working within the Multimodal Language and Cognition Group at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her research focuses on relations between spatial language and cognition in bimodal bilinguals.?

 Edited by Nietzsche.

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