Humans communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages

general article writing

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Humans communicate with one another using a dazzling array of

languages, each differing from the next in innumerable ways. Do the

languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think,

and the way we live our lives? Do people who speak different languages

think differently simply because they speak different languages? Does

learning new languages change the way you think? Do polyglots think

differently when speaking different languages?

These questions touch on nearly all of the major controversies in the study

of mind. They have engaged scores of philosophers, anthropologists,

linguists, and psychologists, and they have important implications for

politics, law, and religion. Yet despite nearly constant attention and debate,

very little empirical work was done on these questions until recently. For a

long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at

best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at

Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have

collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia,

Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who

speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes

of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a

uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human.

Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step

closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.

I often start my undergraduate lectures by asking students the following

question: which cognitive faculty would you most hate to lose? Most of

them pick the sense of sight; a few pick hearing. Once in a while, a

wisecracking student might pick her sense of humor or her fashion sense.

Almost never do any of them spontaneously say that the faculty they'd

most hate to lose is language. Yet if you lose (or are born without) your

sight or hearing, you can still have a wonderfully rich social existence. You

can have friends, you can get an education, you can hold a job, you can

start a family. But what would your life be like if you had never learned a

language? Could you still have friends, get an education, hold a job, start a

family? Language is so fundamental to our experience, so deeply a part of

being human, that it's hard to imagine life without it. But are languages

merely tools for expressing our thoughts, or do they actually shape our

thoughts?

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