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Language Shapes Our Minds

Language is so essential to our existence, so deeply part of what every human has and does, and it’s impossible to picture life without it. As social creatures, we use language as a tool, but this tool is embedded in us. This tool doesn't just help us shape the world around us and create bonds and express things, but this tool also shapes our mind.
They can alter the way we see the world and the way we think and the way we live our lives. I’ve always been a firm believer of this and many different persons including lawyers, linguists, and psychologist speculated it, but not until recently were studies actually done to prove these statements. This was mostly done because it was presumed “untestable”, but luckily, Stanford and MIT found ways to reopen the 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.” (Boroditsky, Lera. "HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK.) Language is a unique thing that humans have had the ability to create and develop and it is not only a key example to express how humans work, but it allows us to express ourselves in so many ways.
To understand how language works, we must first understand what language is. Language is defined as ‘a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition’, but this definition can no longer be viewed as valid. Communication through language isn’t just a verbal expression. In fact, language wasn't the earliest form of expression and communication between two individuals; sign language was. Sign language isn’t just a single language either. Sign language has separate dialects, such as American or French sign language. Language is what gives people the ability to communicate, but these languages shape the way we think.
I am able to speak English fluently and I also have conversational Spanish fluency. With this being said, the languages shape the way we think in conversation because sometimes the words must come out in separate orders than how they are translated, which ultimately shapes the way of how we phrase what we are going to say. This was best phrased by Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor at Stanford, who said “To say [certain things] in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like "red" and not like "reed." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) alter the verb to mark tense “(Boroditsky, Lera.) This clearly influences the way we perceive and remember things. This isn’t about ignorance; it just means that if we don’t talk about something, which may be due to language, we may not think it. We may think the same way and see the same things, but talk differently and this changes us more than we know. Another way language can affect the way we think is by forcing the way we speak. If we cannot directly express something using a word or two, it may not entirely be able to explain. In a Ted talk, Keith Chen, describes the difficulty in Chinese, some phrases are to articulate versus that of other language. The example he uses is trying to say, “This is my uncle.” It’s very easy to say in English, but according to Keith Chen, “In Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.” (Gross, Jessica. "How Language Can Affect the Way We Think) What’s the value of all this information? Nothing really, it’s obligatory. This goes back to a point I was communicating about how certain languages make you think of certain things that others may not. When I say, “this is my uncle”, I don't think “This is my uncle who is the older brother of my mother that is related to me by birth.” Chinese forces the speaker to say this in order to get the small bit of information that he or she wants to get across. The need to share this additional information is also interesting because it can also improve our mind. “Russian speakers, who make an extra distinction between light and dark blues in their language, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.” (Lost in Translation) I think this is actually very neat. Language offered more than just a tool to allow us to express things, but it allowed people who speak Russian frequently to pay more attention to colors and have an easier time identifying colors, which may not be a huge deal to most people, but this could be helpful when it comes to certain professions and overall, it is an additional positive externality.
More importantly than how we speak it, we must consider how the listener interprets the information thrown at him or her. How we use language says a lot. Tone of voice is important in this too. We can be speaking seriously or we can be speaking sarcastically or we can be speaking in a nervous manner and all these little social cues are important to the speaker and the interpreter. If the tone is serious, then it’s clear that this information may be vital or holds some truth. If speaker mumbles and stutters, you may interpret that the speaker is reader for a multiple of reasons.
Language also doesn't always translate perfectly between separate languages. We all remember that one year at the Super Bowl where Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson performed together and a huge wardrobe malfunction lead to a quick exposure of Janet Jackson’s nude breast. When the media covered this, one channeled used identical reports, but they did not transfer over perfectly. “The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase "ripped the costume" while the other said, "the costume ripped." (Lost in Translation) It's clear to see how this could affect the listeners understanding of the story. Reading the costume ripped leads me to believe that it was an innocent mistake. Reading that he ripped her costume makes me feel as if this was an attack on her and something that is almost sickening. In a study, “Not only did people who read, "ripped the costume" blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.” Language doesn't affect everyone who speaks that language the same. If you speak Russian, as we know, not everyone is going to act the same as every other Russian speaker. If you change how they use this language, though, it is found that you change the way people think. Amazingly enough, a study done by MIT was able to conclude that language changes how we perceive certain things. Think of language as a second pair of eyes. If you close one eye, you’re missing a large chunk of the picture that is in front of you. Languages work this way. If you only know one language, you aren’t fully utilizing our human potential to learn languages and improve our understanding of what is around us. Language allows us to analyze certain things differently and think differently of what we are doing or looking at and this is a huge advantage. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.
Language is also a direct tie to our culture and our understanding of it. Coming from a Hispanic family and having parents that are bilingual in both languages, language also helps mold the way that I view my culture. "Language is fundamental to cultural identity. This is so for people everywhere… For this reason, it is important that people keep their own language alive."(Racismnoway. The Importance of Culture, Language and Identity.) If we were to eliminate language, we would be eliminating culture. The roots of who we are can be found in this language. How the words are used, how people’s languages evolve and all these other great questions can be answered by language, but if language were to be lost, the world would be a bore and the ability to understand culture would vanish with it.
Languages also create a strong form of identity. When I am here at Goucher College, I identify with my English speaker identity because that's what is most common here. We listen to songs in English and speak in English and read in English and there isn’t many mix of languages here, unless you are in a language class, so I choose to identify with my English half. My Spanish side mainly comes out when I am at home. The only way I communicate with my grandma is through Spanish and when I spend time with her I like to listen to music by Spanish artist, such as Celia Cruz, because I know her and I will both enjoy it. When I need to speak to my parents, I used what we call ‘Spanglish’. Spanglish is where we articulate by combining the languages of English and Spanish, hence the name. What I find interesting is how many times we do this and it has developed a few problems when I speak to some only Spanish speakers and only English speakers. The problem I tend to find is that I don't know how to say some words in one language and that could be for various reasons, such as, the word doesn't exist or I’m just so used to growing up and hearing the word in one language that I may have never learned it in another. My earliest indication of this problem was back in first grade. I remember transferring to a private school that had a bit less Hispanics and I was trying to tell some friends that I went to my ‘tia’s house. These kids weren’t entirely sure what a what was and I wasn't sure how to tell them, until we asked our teacher and she told us that in English it was an aunt. Lets examine artist. Most of the time when they create beautiful art pieces they don't tend to use words. So how does this have to do with language per say? Well, language creates grammatical gender. “What it means for a language to have grammatical gender is that words belonging to different genders get treated differently grammatically and words belonging to the same grammatical gender get treated the same grammatically.”(Lost in Translation) Languages influence in many ways that we don't consider. Our mind is influenced and affected by this in ways we do not even know. “It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.” (Lost in Translation) Breaking down language proves how vital this is for the human experience. Language is so much more important of a key role than we may have ever considered. It changes the way we view things, it alters how we think about certain things, it alters how we may interpret things, and it alters people from their personality all the way to their understanding of identity.

Works Cited

Gross, Jessica. "How Language Can Affect the Way We Think." Ideastedcom. 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

"Lost in Translation." WSJ. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

"Racismnoway." The Importance of Culture, Language and Identity. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

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