Buttle's World

24 June, 2009

How Language Shapes the Way We Think

Filed under: Posts — clgood @ 13:13

A really fascinating article that quantifies what, to me, seemed obvious.

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

I’m only bilingual, but one of the first things I noticed upon becoming fluent in Spanish was that I thought different things and in different ways in each language. I can’t believe that those who think language doesn’t shape our thoughts are polyglots.

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