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 (172)

  • Amanda Lynn commented on Feb 20 2014

    I think it is strange that there is no mention of the differences between Spanish and English regarding the ownership of emotions. For instance, it is proper in English to say “I am sad” much like you would say “I am John.” The emotion becomes you. In Spanish, “Yo tengo triste” means I have sadness, much like “Yo tengo cafe’” ( I have coffee). The emotion is something you have, not something that you are. I would like to state, without hard evidence, that the idea of moving forward in life comes much easier to people that speak in the latter manner

  • Melissa Bordogna commented on Feb 20 2014

    Why is this so revolutionary? Communication scholars, like myself, have known this for years, but suddenly when an economist points it out, people listen. Nonetheless, it is still great to see these examples.

  • penniespen commented on Feb 20 2014

    It would be interesting to know if people, businesses and their government (related to how supportive they are or are not of same-sex relationships) who come from Finnish cultural backgrounds that “. . .don’t mark gender at all,. . .” have less expectations regarding the public’s gender choices because of their ‘unbiased’ language.

  • Giovanna Marquez commented on Feb 19 2014

    Very interesting to find out that after many years of speaking spanish(my entire life) Ive been saying over and over again that things broke themselves… GREAT! :)

  • commented on Feb 19 2014

    Reblogged this on Hannah's Little English Haven and commented:
    Fascinating…well I thought so!

  • commented on Feb 19 2014

    Is there a word that collectively describes these differences?

  • Greg Demmons commented on Feb 19 2014

    I love TED, but this is so obvious that it made me chuckle to even see/read this. I teach English and have lived in South Korea, Japan and India as a teacher. There are so many examples of this that it would fill volumes of books…in Korean, for example, they use the word 친구, pron. “chingu” and is translated into English as “friend”, but it is not the same. I can be friends with someone who is 10 years my junior in Canada, I can even be friends with a Korean who is 10 years younger, as long as we are here in Canada. But in Korea, the same person whom I called friend in Canada would not be permitted to use the word “chingu” to describe our relationship. Culture and language are inseparable. There is no debate about what came first, as they develop in tandem.

  • Bert Seinstra commented on Feb 19 2014

    Reblogged this on Jusd.

  • commented on Feb 19 2014

    Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all.

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  • Valeria Cossu commented on Feb 19 2014

    My dissertation was based on these theories (broadly speaking). I don’t think that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is overrated, in fact it is highly underrated. While Chomsky’s theory about Universal Grammar tends to discredit the theories which say that language has influences on thought, I think that it is an area that we should investigate more. Thank you for pointing this out.

  • Oscar Menezes commented on Feb 19 2014

    Pretty terrible layout! Won’t read cuz of this bold type that don’t help my eyes into reading.

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  • Paul Adams commented on Jan 27 2014

    All right, I had to stop once I got to the nonsense about “futured languages”. Even before you get to the question of cause and effect, or whether the statistics on savings have any bearing on language whatsoever (as opposed to a trillion other possible factors, cultural, political, or other)… The author of a far-fetched theory should consider the fact that English is NOT a “futured language”.

    There are many languages with future tenses. English is not one of them. Also, in many ways, Chinese is closer to English than most people would guess.

    Of course one can speak of the future in English. We do it all the time. And we’re stricter about how we do it. But there’s no future tense. We have a modal verb which has evolved to suit this purpose (“will”) and we have other strategies. But I guarantee Chinese speakers can also refer to the future. Even if your grammar parses literally as “Tomorrow I go to England,” you have a way to refer to the future. English does this too by applying present continuous to discuss future plans simply by appending a time phrase (e.g. “I’m having a barbecue next weekend.”)

    So… linguistically, this guy either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s being selective about what he acknowledges according to how much it supports his pet theory.

    His theory being–of course–the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis… you know, that hypothesis which this guy DIDN’T originate, which has been kicked around for nearly a century, and which is largely discredited in the linguistics community?

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  • Mitch Milner commented on Dec 21 2013

    Figures. The negatives of English are highlighted, along with the positives of the others. I could have predicted that before reading the article. Yawn.

    • John Toews commented on Dec 23 2013

      I didn’t see it as a put-down for English. To make his points the reader needs to know the language in question well. And it is easiest to contrast things that the language cannot do. Had the talk been about Chinese or German or Arabic, most of us would not have understood the points made at all. Due to the large size of the US and Canada, few in North America know a number of languages, so points about languages have to be contrasted to English.

      And, since you seem a little sensitive on the issue, this is NOT a criticism of North Americans, just fact. In a part of the world where you can travel 1000 miles and only run into English (officially), you have way less reason to learn 5 languages. A different story if a 100 mile journey encounters 6 languages.

      If the topic really interests you, you might re-play the talk and listen for what Kieth Chen is saying about language and culture and thought.

      For example, when Chen talks about Chinese’s ways of saying “Uncle” compared to English’s, it’s not a matter of is English’s way ‘better’ or is Chinese’s way ‘better’. His point is that different things are important to the Chinese mind about uncles that are important to, say, a typical Canadian’s mind. It is not “negative” that English’s word “uncle” carries different information than the various Chinese words for “Uncle” 叔叔, 大爷, 伯父, … (there are 10 or more).

      Now I disagree with Chen – essentially, I think that he has cause and effect reversed. I think because Chinese culture thinks about uncles in this fashion, the Chinese language reflects these gradations. I think cultural thot controls the language to a MUCH greater degree than the language controls cultural thought.

      I also believe problems arise (& mistakes get made) when folks assume that if two things are different, one MUST be better than the other. An apple and a board are different, but neither is ‘better’ in any general way. If you are hungry, the apple is probably ‘better’; if you are building a shed, the board is probably ‘better’.
      To conclude that the differences in the languages in this discussion mean that some languages are ‘better’ than others and that the statements about English are negative, are incorrect AND miss the point of the discussion.

      As for the ‘yawn’, we ALL ‘yawn’ if we listen to / read articles on topics that don’t interest us. And we ALL are almost always offended by articles if we decide, before we start reading, that the article will be offensive. My recommendation: give the article a chance OR don’t waste your time on it!

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