Does Language Affect Our Thinking Capabilities?

We have been talking recently about language and its effects on society and the way people perceive each other. The Ted Talk about texting and its implications on modern language was very insightful about the fact that texting is not a form of writing, but rather a form of talking. This is something I have tried to explain to my parents and to anyone that sends formal texts as paragraphs that look like excerpts from articles, with full punctuation and multiple sentences. These types of messages imply that the writer has spent a much longer amount of time revising and thinking about the message before sending it than would be allowed for in a normal speaking conversation. McWhorter brings up this point in the talk, but neglects the fact that some aspects of writing language do carry over, like the fact that the entire conversation can always be read back and pondered over easier than in regular speech, which just dissipates into the air.

But as much as language can effect the way people think about each other, it can also effect the way people think in general. I recently discovered an amazing podcast about language, words, and what would happen to society and our brains if we didn’t have words. One of the first stories they talk about is about a woman that meets a 27 year old deaf man, who does not know that he is deaf, and consequently lives his life under the assumption that people communicate using solely visual information. The woman started to sign to the man, and every time the man would simply repeat back what the woman signed, indicating that the man did not understand the meaning of the signs. This man had no concept of language in his mind. Further, the woman would try and try to teach the man sign language, but he would never understand what she was trying to do: teach him words, symbols for objects around the room, until one day he had a realization: everything has a name! And all of a sudden this man acquired the concept of language in his mind, and he slowly began to gather names for everything in his life that he previously accepted did not have a name.

After this man learned language, he was asked by many people how he thought before he acquired language, and what that was like. He responded that he doesn’t remember and can’t even describe it, because he doesn’t think hat way anymore. In this way, language shapes the way our brains work and the way we think about things. There are many other examples of this in the podcast, such as deaf societies and the differences in their sign language between young people and older people. For example, the older people in the society, who came up with the original sign language of that area, did not have words in their language to describe thinking, and therefore could not think about thinking, and this was proved in an experiment. Since the younger people had more words for thinking in their expanded sign language, they were able to pass the test, because their languages allowed their brains to have those concepts of thinking about thinking. (It should be noted that the experiment that was used did not depend on the language having a specific word or not; it was a test about theory of mind, which older participants could not pass but younger ones could.) Further, once the younger participants grew older and started hanging around the original older participants, their language about thinking was passed on to them and then they were able to pass this test, showing that the language has a direct effect on the abilities of the brain.

There are many other examples of this in the podcast and I think it is quite enlightening and interesting to think about. The podcast is an hour long so it’s not necessary to listen to it, but I am attaching it in case anyone is interested!

http://www.radiolab.org/story/91725-words/

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