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 (176)

  • Allen Craig commented on Feb 21 2013

    I find this topic fascinating, and having been thinking about it a lot since I’ve been living in South America. (After being raised in the States.)

    But I strongly disagree with Mr. Chen’s assessment on how people who use “futured” languages, like English, save LESS. From my experience, it’s the exact opposite. When your language allows so much focus on the future, you plan more, because you have the language tools to THINK about planning more. Whereas in South America, the language is focused on the here and now, so although it’s a more relaxed lifestyle down south, no one is talking about how they need to be prepared for the next decade–let alone tomorrow. It’s very clear and distinct–and frustrating when you are trying make plans with people.

    • Tim Fired commented on Feb 24 2013

      It isn’t merely Chen’s “assessment” that future-language cultures save less, but according to the article, it’s back up by actual numbers:

      > 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.)

  • John Toews commented on Feb 21 2013

    @Sebastian Apparently different cultures subdivide the spectrum differently, some with more, some with less gradations than the RO G BIV that I was taught (I must admit that I never have been able to make the distinction between Indigo and Violet).

    Also I see this as more of a cultural phenomenon – and the language reflects it’s culture. Attributing these differences to the Language, seems (to me) to imply that by learning a particular language, I will acquire / lose these distinctions. However, I suspect that no matter which language(s) I learn, I will always, for example, SEE colours as R O Y G B & IV. I just may not be able to EXPRESS them that way in a particular language.

    A new language may ALLOW me to make distinctions which I do NOT actually see, and/or the language may make it difficult to express distinctions that I DO see.

    The language may even force me to make distinctions that are not inherently meaningful to me. For example, my meager knowledge of Mandarin forces the distinction between 兄 (older brother) and 弟 (younger brother). I can express brothers (兄弟), plural, but not a generic ‘brother’, singular.

    I also find Mandarin’s lack of what I think of as ‘tense’ fascinating AND frustrating. ‘But how do I say that I WAS a high school teacher??’ The best I have found to express it is: 之前我是一名高中科學教師。 Transliterated roughly as: ‘Before I be …’ 之前 = before, prior to, ago.

    I wonder about gender in Tagalog (Philippines). My wife worked as a lab tech with many Filipinos and was driven nuts by their ‘casual’ gender references. “I took her blood.” could easily refer to “MR. Jones”. This is NOT a putdown of Filipinos / Tagalog speakers, merely an observation of the ‘fun’ involved in communicating amongst languages!

    And finally, it seems to me that these differences tell (well, at least, suggest to) us something about languages: Much of the brouhaha of languages is NOT necessary (except to make them difficult to learn – in order to keep the riff-raff out)! How can gender, that is SO essential to German grammar, REALLY be essential to language if other languages survive quite nicely without it? Or German’s four cases, for that matter? Or the abundance of French tenses, when Chinese has none? Some days I feel that languages, tho I really enjoy them and they fascinate me, are ultimately exercises in contrived difficulties!

    • Sebastian Betti commented on Feb 22 2013

      @John. I agree with you when you say “I suspect that no matter which language(s) I learn, I will always, for example, SEE colours as R O Y G B & IV. I just may not be able to EXPRESS them that way in a particular language.”
      As I see it, all of us have cone cells corresponding to green and blue; so on one side all of us are able to make the distinction between these colors. We are sort of wired for doing so [nothing to say about Indigo and Violet ;) I guess I'm not able to make the distinction between them, either].
      On the other side, and here’s come into action the cultural phenomenon, depending on the language we speak we can or cannot nominate them separatedly.
      That’s what puzzles me the most. But, I have to admit, that maybe I’m being a bit ethno-centric in my appreciation; that’s why I’m forcing myself to learn more on other cultural approaches to it. BTW, there are two lessons at TED-Ed, by Colm Kelleher, talking about colors, and this one is more related to this topic:

      • Amélie Rougeot commented on Jun 26 2013

        I may well be wrong, but regarding colors, I believe it’s not so much about the human capacity to differentiate them, but more about what it means to differentiate them, and the relevance of each color separately for a language community. In other terms, does a given culture NEED, for a specific purpose, to differentiate between colors?
        Breton language (west of France) for example uses the same word for green and blue in nature (the sea, the sky and the trees are all GLAS), but has 2 different words for non natural green and blue (for example in manufactured objects). I guess it does tell us a bit about how language reflects the way we see the world..

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  • Tom Hoffman commented on Feb 20 2013

    It is interesting..

  • commented on Feb 20 2013

    Reblogged this on pau9pocket.

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  • commented on Feb 20 2013

    Reblogged this on Rise of the polyglot.

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  • commented on Feb 20 2013

    Reblogged this on Dan in Deutschland.

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  • Daniel Glenn commented on Feb 20 2013

    language clearly affect how we work and connect in a modern world – the benefits of a modern world where we not only communicate but only communicate through speech…. there must be disadvantages to this.

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  • Sylva Portoian commented on Feb 20 2013

    “Every language has a soul…
    Can you learn languages…All…?”
    [To mean, can you understand their soul and learn each one?]

    • John Toews commented on Feb 21 2013

      It also has a music. I am Canadian and met a young French tourist (from France). I asked him how he found Québécois French, He said, “No problem, tho it has a different music.”

      Tho Anglo myself, I have a pet peeve of Anglo-Canadians dissing Québécois French as not being “True French”. Yet, without the slightest hint of a British accent, they consider their English as True English. My Dad, tho raised a mere 10 miles from a French-Canadian community in Manitoba, learned his French in France … I love my Dad, but on this, we disagree!

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  • john jerry commented on Feb 20 2013

    languages we speak affect the way we think.I just find another related research:

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