Notes on Intercultural Communication

Posts Tagged ‘languages

How Language Influences our Thinking

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The Effect of Language upon Thinking

(…) Much of what has been written on this subject by professional linguists focuses rather narrowly on the question of whether the grammar of a language will influence the thinking of its speakers, without any attention being given to how vocabulary might influence thought. But obviously language is more than grammar, and so conclusions about language in general cannot be drawn from studies which deal only with questions of grammar. (…)

wilhalm von humboldt Wilhelm von Humboldt (* 22. Juni 1767 in Potsdam; † 8. April 1835 in Tegel)

(…) Man lives with objects [around him] mainly, or rather — as feeling and action depend on the ideas which he entertains about the objects — exclusively in the way in which language presents them to him. The very activity by which he spins language out from within himself eventually gets himself entwined in it, and every language draws a circle around the nation to which it belongs, and which one can only leave to the extent that at the same time one enters the circle of another. (…) Humboldt’s German is difficult to translate. By “lives” here he means “experiences life” and by “objects” he means items of objective reality or noumena in the Kantian sense. The sentence in the original German reads as follows: Der Mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja, da Empfinden und Handlen in ihm von seinen Vorstellungen abhängen, sogar ausschließlich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt. Durch denselben Akt, vermöge dessen er die Sprache aus sich herausspinnt, spinnt er sich in dieselbe ein, und jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis, aus dem es nur insofern hinauszugehen möglich ist, als man zugleich in den Kreis einer andren hinübertritt. (…)

Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts. Berlin: Druckerei der Könglichen Akademie, 1836. An English translation of the work is On Language: The Diversity of Human Language and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind, translated by Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), recently reprinted as On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species (1999).


mill John Stuart Mill (* 20. Mai 1806 in Pentonville; † 8. Mai 1873 in Avignon)

(…) Names [i.e. nouns] are impressions of sense, and as such take the strongest hold on the mind, and of all other impressions can be most easily recalled and retained in view. They therefore serve to give a point of attachment to all the more volatile objects of thought and feeling. Impressions, that when past might be dissipated for ever, are, by their connexion with language, always within reach. Thoughts, of themselves, are perpetually slipping out of the field of immediate mental vision; but the name abides with us, and the utterance of it restores them in a moment. Words are the custodiers of every product of mind less impressive than themselves. All extensions of human knowledge, all new generalizations, are fixed and spread, even unintentionally, by the use of words. (…)

John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, 2 vols. (London: John W. Parker, 1843). For the discussion of language see especially Book 4, chapters 3-6. For quotations and page numbers I have used the one-volume edition published in 1858 by Harper & Brothers, New York.

The Effect of Language upon Thinking by Michael Marlowe; April 2004, Revised July 2011

Read the full article online here or download full .pdf here.

(retrieved 03.11.2013 at


Mental Representations of Time in Chinese (Mandarin)

(..) People’s ideas of time differ across languages in other ways. For example, English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors (e.g., “The best is ahead of us,” “The worst is behind us”), whereas Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time (e.g., the next month is the “down month” and the last month is the “up month”). Mandarin speakers talk about time vertically more often than English speakers do, so do Mandarin speakers think about time vertically more often than English speakers do? Imagine this simple experiment. I stand next to you, point to a spot in space directly in front of you, and tell you, “This spot, here, is today. Where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow?” When English speakers are asked to do this, they nearly always point horizontally. But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or eight times more often than do English speakers.


Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers. Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world. (..)

Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time by Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University. download full .pdf online here or here.

(retrieved 31.10.2013 at


Examples of spatiotemporal metaphors in Mandarin

The immediate and chronic influence of spatio-temporal metaphors on the mental representations of time in English, Mandarin, and Mandarin-English speakers by Vicky Tzuyin Lai (Neurobiology of Language Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands) and Lera Boroditsky (Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, US) – Front. Psychol., 09 April 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00142

Read the full .pdf online here or here.

(retrieved 31.10.2013 at


Lera “Groucho” Boroditzki is an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University, who looks at how the languages we speak shapes the way we think. Her best known discovery is about the “Grammatical Gender”.

lera boroditsky

Read an introduction to Lera and her work at the Edge or visit her website at the Stanford University.

Here is an interesting video of a speech she did: Lera Boroditsky – Beyond the Physics: How Languages Help us Construe & Construct


(reviewed 06.07.2016)

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