Essay About Languages. How Languages Change Us

Imagine you speak a language that nobody else in the world speaks. Not a single person knows your language or any translations. How would you communicate with them? Sure, you could use hand motions but how would they know if you are meaning the same thing as they are thinking? For example, let’s say you knew how to do the “ok” hand motion, which means in your language food. In the United States they know it as ok but in Brazil, it is considered very offensive.

Another example is if you knew how to make the peace sign with the palm of your hand facing you and it means drinks in your language. In the United States, this means peace but in other countries this is offensive. If you did these signs not knowing what they mean in their language, there would be no way to tell you what they mean in their language and you could never communicate with them. This example shows how language is crucial to being able to communicate and how language changes the way we think. Language can shape the way we think in many ways. Boroditsky’s cultural examples show how language shapes our time, our knowledge and our perception of something. 

Language can change the way we think about time. An experiment Boroditsky ran was she put pictures of temporal progression like a man aging to a crocodile aging and asked the person to put it in chronological order. The results she got from people who speak different languages were interesting. For English speakers, they lined the pictures from left to right as that is how they read a timeline. This differs from someone who speaks Hebrew as they lined their cards from right to left as they read from right to left. She then did the experiment on the native people from Queensland, Australia who speak Kuuk Thayorre, and found out something very interesting. Depending on what way they are facing, they always lined it up east to west.

For example, if the person was sitting facing south, he or she would line the cards from left to right but if he or she was facing north, then they would line the cards from right to left. This is due to their language actually not having a translation for the word “left” or “right” which means they replace it by having to know the cardinal directions. Another example is how English speakers always talk about time using horizontal metaphors like “ The best is ahead of us” while in Mandarin, they use vertical metaphors like “the next month is a down month” Everywhere time is going at the same rate but the way we describe it using language changes our perspective of it. 

Language can also change the perception of something or how we see things. In English, we do not apply gender to our nouns while in languages such as Spanish and German, all nouns have a gender assigned to them. This not only changes the way you use it in a sentence, but it also changes the way they may describe something. For example, Germans will most likely describe a bridge as beautiful and peaceful while the Spanish speaker will describe it as stung and sturdy. The last example of this is with the word “key”. In German, key is masculine and is described with metal and jagged but in Spanish it is feminine and described as little and fragile. This is all due to the way they learned their language.

The way an object will appear to a Spanish speaker can be different from a German speaker or any language that applies gender to their nouns in their language. Another example of how language changes perception is explained in Boroditsky’s Ted Talk. She tells of an experiment where an English speaker and a Spanish speaker both saw a person bump into a vase and break it. When the person at the mouse asked what happened, the English speaker instantly said who did it. This differs from the Spanish speaker who said, it was just an accident and didn’t blame anybody. This is an example of perception as two people saw the same thing but due to the language they learned, they said two different responses. The English speaker is more likely to say, “He broke the vase” rather than the Spanish speaker who is more likely to say, “The vase broke.” Language can also change your perception of color. When a Russian and an English speaker were tested to see different shades of blue, the Russian speaker outperformed the English speaker. Why is that? Due to the language you learned, it changed how you saw the color. In Russian, there is no single word that is defined as “blue” but in English there is. Russian has translations for light blue and dark blue, hence making it easier for them to see the difference as they are used to doing that. Language can affect the way someone sees something and depending on what language you learn and think in, it can lead to different views on something. 

Language can also change your knowledge of something. In the Ted Talk Boroditsky did, she gave a number test to the audience which they had to count the number of penguins. All the audience counted by counting in their head “one, two…Eight.” It was a very simple Linguistic trick you are taught as a child. Now imagine that you did not have direct translations to numbers, how would you count the number of penguins in the picture? You couldn’t and that is what happens in some of the native languages, there aren’t any translations to numbers. This is very important as if you can count with numbers, it unlocks a whole subject of math and that leads to knowing more. This means that in some languages they are actually unable to do math as they never actually had a translation for numbers which limits their knowledge. Language can unlock a whole bunch of things and knowing more can help you in many ways such as, being able to understand root words in the English language or even just getting around the world. Having knowledge is one thing but being able to communicate it with others and understanding it in your language is essential.

From shaping the way we perceive time to how we learn basic knowledge while being a kid, language has always been a part of our life. Language has shaped our history and will shape the future ahead of us. It will also continue changing how we see the world and how we connect with others. To even be better connected, learning another language will make you more knowledgeable and better connected with others. Boroditsky shows how language really does shape the way we think, saying, “... the language we speak profoundly shapes the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives” (Boroditsky pg.10). Proving how language will be a major part of our lives and will continue to shape who we are.

Work Cited:

Boroditsky, Lera. How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think? Edge. 2009



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