Culture TED Talks

5 examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think

Posted by: Jessica Gross

languageEconomist Keith Chen starts today’s talk with an observation: to say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.

Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money?Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money? “All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”

This got Chen wondering: Is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, Chen wanted to know: does our language affect our economic decisions?

Chen designed a study — which he describes in detail in this blog post — to look at how language might affect individual’s ability to save for the future. According to his results, it does — big time.

While “futured languages,” like English, distinguish between the past, present and future, “futureless languages,” like Chinese, use the same phrasing to describe the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Using vast inventories of data and meticulous analysis, Chen found that huge economic differences accompany this linguistic discrepancy. Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers. (This amounts to 25 percent more savings by retirement, if income is held constant.) Chen’s explanation: When we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.

But that’s only the beginning. There’s a wide field of research on the link between language and both psychology and behavior. Here, a few fascinating examples:

  1. Navigation and Pormpuraawans
    In Pormpuraaw, an Australian Aboriginal community, you wouldn’t refer to an object as on your “left” or “right,” but rather as “northeast” or “southwest,” writes Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky (and an expert in linguistic-cultural connections) in the Wall Street Journal. About a third of the world’s languages discuss space in these kinds of absolute terms rather than the relative ones we use in English, according to Boroditsky. “As a result of this constant linguistic training,” she writes, “speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.” On a research trip to Australia, Boroditsky and her colleague found that Pormpuraawans, who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, not only knew instinctively in which direction they were facing, but also always arranged pictures in a temporal progression from east to west.
  2. Blame and English Speakers
    In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broke eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice bent toward punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims, Boroditsky argues.
  3. Color among Zuñi and Russian Speakers
    Our ability to distinguish between colors follows the terms in which we describe them, as Chen notes in the academic paper in which he presents his research (forthcoming in the American Economic Review; PDF here). A 1954 study found that Zuñi speakers, who don’t differentiate between orange and yellow, have trouble telling them apart. Russian speakers, on the other hand, have separate words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). According to a 2007 study, they’re better than English speakers at picking out blues close to the goluboy/siniy threshold.
  4. Gender in Finnish and Hebrew
    In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all, Boroditsky writes in Scientific American (PDF). A study done in the 1980s found that, yup, thought follows suit: kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)

Comments (175)

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  • Adam Jay commented on Feb 19 2013

    I guess the tough thing to disentangle here is what came first. Did the culture and way of thinking of the community inform the language they created or does the language they use create the way of thinking?

    • commented on Feb 20 2013

      That’s a really good point

      • Mike Kalustian commented on Apr 13 2014

        The Sapir Whorf theory would say both co-construct each other equally. People create a language as a tool and that tool begins to shape them. As a professor of communication studies I don’t think you can separate notions of culture and language, they are intertwined together.

      • Ali Bux commented on Apr 14 2014

        If you read any of Lera Boroditsky’s essays or studies, you will see she uses bilingual individuals tested in both languages in order to separate the effect of culture. There would be no difference in culture if all subjects were, say German, but only the language they were tested in changed.

    • John Toews commented on Feb 21 2013

      That’s been my reservation about this whole discussion. As I noted elsewhere, I am convinced that these are linguistic expressions of a cultural world view. I think of the language, rather than constraining a child’s thinking, as merely carrying the cultures thinking to the child. Each language evolving as needed to carry it’s culture’s thinking. This applies to subcultures as well, from what I see.

      One trite example: Even when I was in high school, the word ‘email’ did not exist. Subsequently, it was coined as a noun, and now is also a verb.

      • commented on Apr 13 2014

        That’s not the best example. The word “email” is just a shortened version of “electronic mail”. It’s derivative. Besides, the word “mail” was also used as a noun and a verb beforehand. It was only natural that “email” would follow suit.

    • Katrine Soendergaard commented on Apr 12 2014

      Did humanity shape society or did society shape humanity? Did humanity or society create culture?… Those are the questions.

    • Patrick Silla commented on Apr 12 2014

      I’m not sure if that’s the best question to be asking because your way states that A must have influenced B or vice-versa, too absolute. They are symbiotic and both influence one another. What could be more prudent to know is which one influences the other more. E.G we all know that nurture and nature have an effect of the individual, but which one has the greater effect? What d’you reckon?

    • Sue Elliott commented on Apr 13 2014

      I wrote an exam question on that very subject a while ago for my degree. The inevitable conclusion I reached was that it was impossible to tell…and likely a ‘bit if both’ … :-)
      Nevertheless….a fascinating question….. :-)

    • Gavin Magrath commented on Apr 13 2014

      “I guess the tough thing to disentangle here is what came first.”

      I don’t think it’s as tough as you suggest. First, if culture formed the language, that would suggest that different cultural traits were somehow hard-wired into people – that’s a hypothesis that flies in the face of most of what we know about human development, so it’s intrinsically unlikely.

      Second, if it were true, then it would result in (for example) French or Jewish children born and raised in Sweden speaking Swedish to develop gender awareness earlier (their culture causing the result) and even to create gendered grammmar in a form of patois (their culture causing the result). Or kids from the orange/yellow tribe still not being able to distinguish although raised in America with oranges and lemons. These hypotheses could be tested, but again they seem so obviously wrong that they can pretty safely be rejected.

      Thirdly, as I think most multilingual people will attest, the act of learning a new language with its own unique features helps you understand and think in those different ways. For example, you learn a bit about the word “uncle” and the past/future distinction in Chinese from this article, but to actually understand the manner in which you actually think differently when thinking in Mandarin you would have to be able to speak (and think) in Mandarin. Once you become fluent in another language you can think and dream in that language in essentially the same way as the people who speak it – again, the language opening up the doors to the new way of thinking, not the other way around.

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  • William Dalmazzo commented on Feb 19 2013

    I knew this since 3 years ago and never read a book about :/

  • commented on Feb 19 2013

  • Michel Desjardins commented on Feb 19 2013

    Good article. Being French-Canadian, having lived in Russia and now living in Australia, I could not agree more.

    By learning new languages I started thinking differently. In a more plural way (Non-Aristotelian).

    However, mathematics are always though processed in French, somehow…

    • Ashlene Allen commented on Feb 20 2013

      I guess it depends on the language you learn it. Being an anglo-québécoise who went to French school, all my math is processed in French too…

      • John Toews commented on Feb 21 2013

        It seems to me that most people count, and probably do math in their mother tongue.

        I’ve often noted people with fluent English counting in their mother tongue (‘read my lips’). Tho I don’t recall the details, I do recall this conversation I had with a gal who’s mother tongue was not English (Chinese??). Having watched her lips, I said “You just counted that in English!” She, “Yes. So?” Me, “I’m impressed!” I remember it as an anomaly, tho.

        I COULD (in times past) get myself to process math in German – for limited calculations. But for longer / more difficult calculations, I lapsed back to English.
        Alas, tho Canadian, to do so in French is still a sustained effort at best for me.

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  • masika sweetwyne commented on Feb 19 2013

    As a Zuni, I would personally prefer if people stopped giving credence to “linguistics” studies of the Zuni language that were written by non-fluent white guys from the 1950s. And ftr, we can tell yellow from orange. What a ridiculous allegation.

    • John Toews commented on Feb 21 2013

      Appreciate your input! Sorry you felt the allegation ridiculous, inaccurate tho it apparently is. But I would argue that what we “see” is a complex psychological processing of the photons falling on our retinas. Therefor, in general, to allege that different cultures may extract somewhat different information from the same pattern of photons, is not unreasonable or unfair, even if it ends up being inaccurate.

      Here in Canada, our classic version of this is the number of words our Inuit reputedly have for ‘snow’. A traditional Inuit sees a lot more in a field of snow than I do – at best I see different skiing conditions!

      For that matter, my wife and I often extract different information from the same visual field.

      • César André Pérez commented on Apr 14 2014

        You’re right. Of course people have relatively the same perception skills. However, the information elicited out of perceptions using different languages is different, too.

      • commented on Apr 17 2014

        Vis-a-vis the Inuit, the key word is “reputedly.” The oft-told factoid that they have 50, 100, 200+ words for snow is simply untrue. See Stephen Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” for a fuller discussion of this.

  • commented on Feb 19 2013

    Reblogged this on Hi, my name is KRis.

  • Pres Wensleydale commented on Feb 19 2013

    Thought I would mention a great Anthropological article that really stood out to me during my post-grad. Alfred Gell’s ‘The Language of The Forest’ looks deeply into the phenomenological linguistic effects upon different cultures.

  • Jon Turino commented on Feb 19 2013

    Some great observations, Jessica. Thanks for sharing them. I put a few of my own up last summer at

  • Sebastian Betti commented on Feb 19 2013

    Really interesting article! In the same spirit of this post I’d like to share something that’s always puzzled me: The fact that many languages do not have separate terms for blue and green. More info on this topic at:

  • commented on Feb 19 2013

    Reblogged this on Teapot Antics and commented:
    Love this sort of stuff. Being bilingual.. no wonder I’m so conflicted ;)

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  • commented on Feb 19 2013

    Reblogged this on dr mariam ashraf and commented:
    I found this article fascinating so I thought I’d share.

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  • commented on Feb 19 2013

    Reblogged this on Digital cultures and translation and commented:
    TED speaker Keith Chen illustrates with five examples what I had earlier discussed in posts like Thinking in Chinese and Defining culture specific emotions – that languages can and do affect the way we think.

  • Seth Silverton commented on Feb 19 2013

    See Phuc Tran’s fabulous talk at TEDx Dirigo on this subject.

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