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Does Language Affect the Way Our Brain Works?

By Brenda Lee Intignano

Have you ever thought about how your native language shapes the way you think, how your brain processes data and how it expresses concepts when talking to someone else?

Scientists and linguists have been interested in this topic for a long time, and many studies have claimed that the language we were born in makes us see the world in a different way compared to the vision of another language’s native speaker.

The examples are everywhere: try to think about how Italians have different ways to say “I love you” according to the relationship they have with their interlocutor – romantic/deeply connected or just friendly – or how the Guugu Ymithirr tribe from Northern Australia have no concept of “left” and “right” since their vision of the world is not centred on their position, but focuses instead on the environment – using cardinal directions to express locations.

So, whilst in Italy might be much easier to detect whether you are in the friend-zone or not, the Guugu Ymithirr people develop an astonishing spatial memory and navigation skills at a very young age.

Although knowing more than a language does not – generally speaking – improve your mental ability, there definitely are many perks in becoming part of the polyglot family, like understanding some every day phenomena even without being particularly knowledgeable in the topic.

A striking example of how the language you speak molds your brain in understanding concepts without even being fully aware of them, is the use of Chinese language and their philosophy when talking quantum physics.

If you’re familiar with the ancient Chinese worldview, you probably already know about the Tao symbol: the black and white representation of opposites such as, for example, positive and negative and their coexistence to maintain balance in the creation; feminine and masculine energy, good and evil, and so on. Positive and negative are also present in magnetism, and the Chinese have a specific word to describe the magnetic tension between Yin and Yang, the two dependent opposite forces of the Tao: qi, a term also widely used in the study of Chinese martial arts.

The word qi (/ˈtʃiː/ CHEE simplified Chinese: 气; traditional Chinese: 氣; pinyin: qì qì) has been imported in western culture under different names, from “ether” to “vital force”, and lastly, thanks to British biochemist and historian Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham – whose life was dedicated to the research and writing on the history of Chinese science and technology – the word translated as “matter-energy”. Although it seems that the ancient Chinese did not theorise about gravity, one of the quantum forces, their character to represent it in pictograms is the lovechild between “heavy” and “force”, which pretty much sums up the concept without going deeper in the mechanics of physics.

Asian languages have something else to teach us, and it’s that language is culture and culture is language. Through the words that we learn when learning another language, we can understand many aspects of the way of life of its native speakers: Chinese language and its many idioms regarding family show us how this value is important in their culture. In Italy, a country well known for its history and art, there are dozens of differently named colours, and this shows how important is in their culture to describe and represent things in their true tones. Russia, similarly, has for example two very different categories of “blue”; the light blue shade is called goluboy, whilst the darker shade is named siniy.

This distinction tends to be learned very early by Russian children, and it positively affects their ability to quickly distinguish colours when competing against speakers of a language that doesn’t teach that distinction to its children.

Another thing that the Italian and Russian languages seem to have in common, is that they tend to say “thank you” less. A case of rudeness? Not at all. Instead, it seems that culturally wise, cooperation is considered a basic expectation when interacting with fellow humans in need. So no need to thank – for some people, helping is simply a pleasure and one of the many things we give and receive. Similarly, in some other places, “please” and “thank you” don’t follow the same etiquette of English related cultures.

In India, for example, relationships are very important – so much, in fact, that a close friend or a family member can be considered like an extension of one’s self. Their way of thinking is far more collective than in western cultures, and certain politeness can give a sense of estrangement when misused with family and friends. For instance, the Indian website dedicated to tourism in India, teaches us that in their country if you thank a close friend of yours that just gave you a lift to the train station, this would make it look as if you’re treating your friend like a cab driver, since in Indian culture it is assumed that being friends means being there for each other, and formality would only mean that you do not feel comfortable.

So, ultimately, do languages actually affect the way we think and approach the rest of the world? Lera Boroditsky, cognitive scientist and professor in the fields of language and cognition, tells us that this is one of the questions between the major controversies in the study of the mind. Her research at Stanford University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has helped reopen the question that many before her left partially unanswered, and by collecting data around China, Europe, Indonesia, South America and Aboriginal Australia she was able to determine that people that speak different languages do indeed have different ways to think, and how even the slightest difference in our grammatical choices can change the way we see the world.

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