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Thinking Out Loud: How Languages Shape Thought

by Keegan Coppola

Think of your all-time favorite quote. Odds are, some single line stands out to you: that at some point in your life you’ve thought “Absolutely, YES. I am going to become the change I hope to see in the world”. “Necessity is the mother of all invention”. Or, Forrest Gump was right – “Life is EXACTLY like a box of chocolates”. A personal favorite is Charles the Great, saying “To have a second language is to have a second soul”. But no matter what your quote is, we’ve all read something that explains ourselves just a little bit better than we might have done alone. And in that novel, movie, classroom, fortune cookie - or whatever – is a well-known truth. Language shapes the ways we view and interact with the world. But how often do we stop and ask ourselves: Which language exactly?


Language scholars today argue that our worldviews inextricably link to the languages we speak, and our very cognitive processes stem from native tongue. Languages have different ways of dealing with verbs, gender, time, space, metaphor, and more. These differences create frameworks for the ways we think and act. That is, your first language affects you, even when you’re not speaking it! To illustrate, look at these three panels, and decide what story they’re telling you. Then, I’ll give you mine.

I think this is Ahmed. Ahmed walks home from school, eats dinner with his father, and goes to sleep soon after. Oh, sorry – Did you read the story the other way around? Maybe you saw these pictures as a little boy waking up, going to breakfast, and then leaving for school. This sequencing is a direct product of the languages you speak. Arabic, for instance, is written right to left. So if this post were in Arabic, perhaps the “first” panel becomes third, the third becomes first, and the whole storyline changes. A difference in language can change the ways we make sense of the world. But this story has no words, proving that linguistic knowledge influences nonverbal interactions and perception.

For instance, gender takes priority in the Arabic language in ways unparalleled in English. Most non-human objects are gendered in Arabic. To monolingual English speakers, however, a chair can’t have a gender. Grammatical genders, or lack thereof, can reform our feelings towards an object. In a 1990 psychology experiment, Lera Boroditsky asked German and Spanish natives to describe inanimate objects in their mother tongue. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers listed “feminine characteristics”, such as being slender and elegant. Spanish speakers ascribed more masculine adjectives to the exact same images. To explain this inconsistency, researchers turn to the grammatical use of gender. The German word for bridge (die Brücke) is a feminine noun, whereas the Spanish word (el Puente) is masculine. Thus, German speakers found bridges to be feminine, whereas Spaniards found them masculine. This trend continued through several rounds of research, comparing gendered nouns such as “clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world, and love” (New York Times). Repeatedly, masculine verbs had masculine traits, even when subjects viewed the exact same images. Researchers attribute this pattern to linguistic difference.

“So that’s great”, you think “But I don’t speak either of those languages”. In fact, if English is your primary language, you may have little concept of grammatical genders at all. As a native English speaker, my worldview is shaped (if not limited) by my linguistic framework. Perhaps you’ve faced a similar challenge. If your first language is a gendered one, it may be hard to break those habits. In Arabic, for instance, subject-verb agreement, conjugation, and adjectives all depend on a gendered language system. These associations, once formed, are very difficult to break. As one native Hebrew speaker says “When I speak English, I may say about a bed that ‘it’ is too soft, but… I actually feel ‘she’ is too soft.” (New York Times) And so, learning a new language gives us new ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Of course, becoming multilingual is no small feat. Some of the most frustrating moments of language study come from cramming a new language into the framework of an old one. When I first learned the Arabic alphabet, I thought “Okay, so أ is A. ب is B. But what on earth is خ?” At this point, I was so burdened by my own rules and frameworks, I left no space for new ones. But in my fourth year of Arabic study, I’m proud to say يمكن التغلب على هذه المشكلة: This problem can be overcome! Though our languages are guiding frameworks, they open up a world of possibility. With each new language comes an opportunity to challenge unspoken assumptions and interpretive frames. As Boroditsky says herself, “These are not differences of degree, but a parallel universe”.  

About the author: Keegan Coppola

I am in the class of 2021 at Boston College, studying Islamic Civilizations and Communication. I'm in my fourth year of intensive Arabic study, and am currently researching fashion cultures and symbolism in Morocco. I'm very interested in Middle Eastern languages, culture, and politics. I'm also a tutor with Paper Airplanes, and love to meet new people through the program and through travel. I've visited twenty countries in my life and am excited to keep seeing and learning about the world!

The views and opinions represented in this post belong solely to the author of the blog post, and are not representative of the views and policies of Paper Airplanes and its staff members.

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