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Ways in Which Language and Culture Influence the Way We Think - Essay Sample

6 pages
1432 words
Harvey Mudd College
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People are born into a culture and sometimes they grow into another. At every step human beings have to communicate and try to understand each other. Further, for one to speak, one must think about ideas and the subject matter. In the world around, there are many things happening. People visualize the world and react to it according to their long known actions. However, changes may occur in the reactions depending on changes in behavior. The permanent idea is that people have to translate the world and communicate perceptions and opinions.

Generally, theories are developed to explain the connections between culture, language and thoughts. According to Jiang (2000), the common hypothesis is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The theory introduces two main terminologies. That is, linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. The first one is further divided into two. A strong linguistic determinism states that language determines thoughts while a weak linguistic determinism refers the language as an influencer to the thoughts. In the second theory, the differences experienced in languages result from the differences in thoughts. Whether peoples culture, language and thoughts are related is a matter of scrutiny. On one hand culture and language determine how individuals think. On the other hand, culture and language are not subjects to thoughts. The argument this paper proposes is that there is a relationship between culture, language and thoughts but thinking is not exclusively a subject of culture and language.

To begin with, culture and language are related. Culture is behavior that is either born to or gained with time. A child finds the parents and family in a consistent and somehow constant behavior. The child recognizes with the behavior as a parent directs. As the child grows, the world around changes and the child is exposed to many cultures and subcultures. The choice to behave in a certain way then lies with the grown child and is subject to change with time. Equally, a child is taught a language and grows to know other languages. The language taught to the child, initially, is the way their culture translates the world. Language, therefore, express an individuals culture. With time, a subculture is adopted and so a different language is used. For instance, a child is born in a Christian home. The speech used reflects purity and believe in Christian ways. Nevertheless, the world possess different religions and believes and the child may change believes. If the child no longer views Christs behavior as the way of the current world, then according to Christianity the child no longer reflects righteousness. The childs expressions become les pure. In the same manner, the child thoughts are attached to the culture and they change with time to apply the new subculture. Conclusively, thoughts reflect on the subculture and language is a product of thoughts.

Language does not influence how people view the world. According to Brooditsky (2011) the only types of experiences that determine language are facts of the world, universal human cognition, and cultural practices. For example, the sun usually comes from the east and that fire is normally hot are facts of the world. The ability to refer to objects with words is a universal recognition. Culture on the other hand presents convectional ways of identifying space, time, natural phenomena, and kinship. Brooditsky (2011) gives different perspectives as viewed by different people from around the world. For instance, Brooditsky uses the word I to say that she saw Uncle Vanya on the 42nd street. Mian would translate the word I to know whether the occasion just happened, happened yesterday or happened in the past. On the other hand, Indonesia would use the verb to further determine whether the event had already happened or was to happen. In Russia, I would reveal gender. In Mandarin, I would elaborate the relationship of the uncle. It will reveal whether the uncle is paternal or maternal and whether the uncle is related by marriage or blood. Consequently, translation of language may differ but the overall decision may coincide. Languages also shape world experiences. Kuuk Thaayorre is a language spoken in Pormpuraaw and does not utilize spatial relative words including left and right. The language replaces these words with absolute cardinal directions such as north, east, south, and west. English language also adopts the absolute cardinal directions but when referring large special scale. In an example, English would not tell a person to stand on the east side of a wall but Kuuk Thaayorre does that. The wording is different but the overall meaning in the different languages is the same.

Moreover, people think differently about time as they think about space. Brooditsky (2011) carried out an experiment to determine whether thought about time is similar to the thought about space. In the study, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers were provided with pictures that show temporal progression. The pictures displayed a man aging, a banana being eaten, and a crocodile growing. The speakers were asked to arrange the pictures according to the order of occurrence. In such a scenario, English speakers would rearrange the cards from left to right. The Hebrews would rearrange the cards from right side to left side. Unlike the two speakers, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers arranged the cards from the east to the west irrespective of the direction they were facing at the time of the study. According to Brooditsky (2011), the surprising thing was that the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers were not told the direction they faced but were already aware of their seating direction. In another study, Lynden Miles and others, discovered that English speakers move their body differently while reflecting on the future and thinking about the past. The researchers discovered that often the English speakers sway bodies to the back while thinking about the past and forward while thinking about the future. On the other hand, Aymara speakers in the Andes think the past is in front and the future is behind. Relatively, Aymara speakers use front gestures to refer to the past and behind gestures to refer to the future.

Different languages differ in referring to an event and in remembering the event. According to Brooditsky (2011), Americans do not like non-agentive language sounds because they consider them to be evasive in English. The English speakers, contrarily, prefer using transitive constructive words that directly tells who did what. For instance, instead of saying the vase was broken by James, the Americans prefer to say James broke the vase. On the other hand, Japanese and Spanish opt not to mention the agent. In the example, they would say the vase broke. Consequently, the linguistic differences influence peoples ability to remember. To establish this, Brooditsky (2011) carried out a study involving English, Japanese and Spanish. In the research, the participants watched videos about guys popping balloons and spilling drinks and breaking eggs either accidentally or intentionally. A surprise memory test was thereafter administered to determine the agents. According to Brooditsky (2011), the three languages distinguished the intentional events in the same manner. However, accidental events were described more agentively by Japanese and Spanish than by English speakers. In addition, the English speakers remembered the accidental agents more than their counter parts.

Another study was conducted to determine the influence of grammatical gender on the perception of people. Cross-cultural involved in the study included Japanese, English, Spanish, and French speakers (Borowski, 2015). The team was presented with two booklets that had cartoons of 20 objects. Their task was to distinguish between a male and a female and circle a boys or girls picture next to the cartoon. Further, the participants were to distinguish attributes of the cartoons in the other book by assigning little-big, warm-cold, low-high and beautiful-ugly. The first items in the two booklets were female and the second were male. In this experiment, the assumption was that the French and Spanish have grammatical gender system and therefore would assign gender according to grammatical category of the given word. On the other hand Japanese and English would assign gender based on perception of the objects gender. The assumptions held true. The French and Spanish speakers chose gender according to the grammatical gender while the English and Japanese chose gender according the assigned attributes. Conclusively, Borowski, 2015, grammatical gender influences speakers of the languages that have grammatical gender system and, therefore, how they conceptualize objects.


Brooditsky, L. (2011). How language shapes thought: The languages we speak affect our perceptions of the world. New York: Scientific American.

Borowski, M. (2015). Language and its influence on how we understand reality. SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics, 13(2).

Jiang, W. (2000). The relationship between culture and language. ELT journal, 54(4), 328-334.

Gleitman, L., & Papafragou, A. (2013). 32 Relations Between Language and Thought.

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