One of the greatest abilities humans have is this — Language.
For so long, people have treated words as mere labels for objects, and languages as different ways to string words together to convey thoughts, feelings, and concepts. But language is more than that. Because of it, we can exchange complex thoughts and ideas with one another, whether it be spoken aloud or written in ink. It’s also through language that we’re able to trigger emotions, imagination, and action.
Now, of course, there’s no single language spoken around the world. There are more than 7,000 that exist today! And all these languages differ from one another in all kinds of ways; they all have different sounds, vocabularies, and structures.
This, now, begs the question: Does language influence the way we think? Many have suggested that it does! It widens our perspective, deepens our knowledge, and changes the way we perceive the world. But how is that?
Language and culture go together
Language isn’t just a way to communicate, it’s a component of culture that makes it unique and specific. When language and culture are discussed, the phrase “language is culture and culture is language” is often mentioned because the two are always intertwined. This means that the language you speak reflects what your values and beliefs are.
According to anthropological linguist Daniel Everett, language can be considered a cultural tool to relate a community’s values and ideals and is shaped and molded by these residents over time. For example, looking at the many idioms the Chinese culture has on family, you can definitely see how much they value that relationship. Another is with a unique Korean word “nunchi” (meaning eye-measure) that has no English translation. This word relates to the Korean belief in gauging how people are thinking and feeling in order to create connection, trust, and harmony.
From those samples (and perhaps some you can think from your own culture), you’ll observe that society and language are mutually important to each other. Because every person’s linguistic ability, knowledge, and usage are somewhat influenced by the social context of how they were raised and taught. So, if you’re looking to learn a new language, prepare yourself to be introduced to a new world apart from your own!
Language changes how we see things
If you’re familiar with the principle of linguistic relativity, it states that the way people think of the world is influenced directly by the language that the people use to talk about it. Or more radically, people could only perceive aspects of the world for which their language has words.
An easier way to explain this is with color perception. The number of terms we have for the colors we see varies from one language to another. For instance, English speakers name different shades of blue as dark blue and light blue. Russian speakers have two distinct categories for blue: it’s either siniy (dark blue) or goluboy (light blue). We do the same thing for another color: dark red and light red — the latter of which we call pink! With this, people who speak two or more languages are expected to focus differently regarding colors because different languages distinguish color in various ways.
Another example is with time. An English speaker would usually organize time from left to right, but with Arabic speakers, time is laid out from right to left. Different languages also call for different ways of counting. In French, 92 is quatre-vingt douze or “four twenties and twelve”. But for English, 92 is simply ninety-two. Contrast this with Mandarin Chinese, where the relationship between the tens and the units is very clear. Here, 92 is written jiǔ shí èr, which translates as “nine ten two”. Amazing, right?
There are so many more examples of how language influences perception, like with regards to gender and describing events. But the bottom line is the same: languages don’t limit our ability to perceive the world or to think about the world, rather, they focus our attention, and thought on specific aspects of the world.
What this means for bilinguals
Given the things we’ve tackled, it’s no surprise that those who speak more than one language see the world differently. Numerous studies have shown that a new language can change how the human mind pulls information together, hence, enabling bilinguals (and even multilinguals) to have more than one perspective on a particular issue. Say, for decision-makers, this may facilitate negotiations and the ability to see both sides of an argument and different points of view.
Even more benefits come from being bilingual such as improved performance, better memory, and increased confidence. This is why multinational companies are looking to employ more bilinguals and also equip their workforce with global language skills they can use in the workplace and upon interacting with customers and clients such as those in healthcare and finance.
Is your organization doing the same? Because now that you know how powerful language is, you might want to re-evaluate your corporate training efforts. Contact us to learn more about how to accelerate your company’s language learning.