Language and our Limits

Article by: Linh Nguyen

Language is a magical tool. As far as we know, our level of language use is more sophisticated than that of any other living creature. But, by developing this magic into a critical means of communication, the human race may have inadvertently limited its abilities of perception and thought. Does a person’s language mold the way they perceive the world and make judgments? Or do we all perceive and think similarly, and simply communicate these thoughts differently? The notion of language and its effects on humans are undoubtedly controversial. However, there have been studies that support the fact that language does, in fact, shape they way people behave.

Dr. Boroditsky, a Stanford cognitive psychologist, conducted a study on the language of the people from Pormpuraaw, a small indigenous community west of Cape York in northern Australia. She studied a group of locals called the Kuuk Thaayorre because she found that they had a rather intriguing way of portraying space. Instead of using words such as “left” and “right” to describe space, the Kuuk Thaayorre locals used the words for north, south, east and west.  To the Kuuk Thaayorre, it was completely normal to say

“There’s an ant on your southeast leg”

meaning “There’s an ant on your right leg”. This form of communication helped tribe members to stay oriented at all times – even when blindfolded!

Another study was conducted that investigated the effects of language on people’s color perception. Russian speakers have no single word that can be used to describe all the shades of what we English speakers refer to as “blue”. Russians use the word “goluboy” to describe light blue and “siniy” to describe dark blue. This distinction actually made Russian speakers quicker at differentiating the two shades of blue. English speakers generally took longer to distinguish shades because they only had one word to describe a whole range of blue colors.

From these studies, it is safe to conclude that language does influence the way we think. However, as Theory of Knowledge teacher Dylan Marshall puts it,

“Thinking can occur without language, but language cannot occur without thinking. Language is just a way in which we can transfer our thinking into someone else’s mind…Therefore, language does influence the way we think, but it does not determine what we think.”

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