(By Anabelle Buggle)
Do you to prefer to save up your money for the future, or splurge on something you want right now? Do you like to hit the gym and go for a jog, or would you rather kick back and relax? Whatever your choices, we tend to believe that these are our decisions to make: it’s totally up to us, and all we have to do is choose differently if we want.
Yet a growing body of research shows that we may not always have as much control as we think we do. Scientists have long predicted that the very language we speak can influence or even limit how we think — and how we behave. The words and grammatical structures of our languages might train us to think in quite different patterns.
One of the earliest examples of this effect is how we see colours. Remarkable as it may seem, not all people interpret colours in the same way — because they don’t have the same words for these colors. Some languages, like Vietnamese, use the same word for blue and green; other languages like Russian have no word for blue at all, and instead require choosing between the words for light blue or dark blue.
When your language forces you to pay attention to shades of blue — or lets you ignore the difference between two colours — this can train your brain to be more or less proficient at categorizing those colours. The science supports this: babies who haven’t yet learned Russian are no better at telling apart shades of blue than any other babies, but when these children do learn Russian, they can distinguish light blue and dark blue more accurately than kids who speak English.
The skills we pick up from our languages can be even more useful than that. Certain Aboriginal tribes in Australia speak Kuuk Thaayorre, a language with no words for directions like “left” and “right” relative to the way they’re facing. Instead, they only have words for north, south, east and west, and these words are used in place of left and right. This means that, to describe directions, they must always keep an internal compass: if they want to talk about what we call left and right, they need to remember where north is. As it turns out, that’s exactly what they do. Even when they’re led through unfamiliar buildings with no windows, they can still accurately point to north.
If a simple difference in language can impart such an ability, how else might vocabulary and grammar affect the way we behave? As Yale economist Keith Chen recently discovered, the impact on our lives can be extraordinary. Professor Chen’s key insight was that, just as some languages may guide how we think about colours or directions, all languages fall into two distinct categories based on their grammar for referring to future events. While some require their speakers to indicate that they’re explicitly talking about something in the future, other languages force people to talk about the future in the same way as they do the present, using the same grammar for both.
For instance, English is known as a “futured” language — it makes us talk about the present and the future differently. We can say “it is cold today”, but if we’re referring to tomorrow’s weather, we have to say “it will be cold tomorrow.” Not all languages make this distinction: Finnish encourages its speakers to use a grammar akin to saying “today be cold” or “tomorrow be cold”, and they can say “be cold” whether they’re talking about the present or the future.
When people talk about the present and future in the same way, might they also think of them as being the same in certain ways? And what would that mean for how they behave? Chen theorised that a futureless language might lead its speakers to treat the future as being on an even footing with immediate, present-day matters, but a futured language suggests that long-term concerns can be seen as something separate and more distant from right now. Those who consider the future to be far-off and less important might not be as willing to endure present-day tradeoffs for the sake of their future well-being.
Language inescapably saturates our lives; it is what enables us to reach the heights of human achievement, serving as the tool with which we think and express ourselves and spread ideas. Yet just as we must learn a language, it seems the language itself may train us: to focus on one area of life and disregard another, to acquire and practice a new skill while putting others on the back burner, to prioritise the present or prepare for our future. As we’ve now found, our language is much more than just the way we talk. It’s the way we spend and save, the way we eat and breathe, and even the way we live and die.