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.
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