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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 17:34 GMT
Does the language we speak affect the way we think?
Language is one of the key debates at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston this weekend.

A hot topic is whether the language we speak affects the way we think.

Language at its most simple is a means of communication, but psychologists and linguists now believe that the language we use can influence our behaviour and how we interact with the outside world.

If you are bilingual - does your character change with the language you are speaking? How closely are cultural and national identities defined by language? And what impact will the ever-increasing domination of English have on the way the world communicates?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.


Your reaction


I hope the world will never speak one language

Anand Rajoo, Guyana
I personally feel that language does affect someone's personality. My grandparents came from India to live in Latin America. Although I live in the only English speaking country there and can speak English, Spanish and Hindi fluently, I speak English every day because I don't have a choice. However, when I speak Hindi, my ancestral tongue to my family, an empty vacuum is filled for me because I'll always be Indian. There is definitely a change in personality and I feel that mankind is more beautiful because of diversity. So I hope the world will never speak one language.
Anand Rajoo, Guyana

Absolutely, I feel that language drives the way we think. The more rich a language (say in terms of vocabulary), the more likely a person wIll have varied thinking. It just opens new avenues of the thought process. I feel the realm of our thinking is partially determined by language.
Bonny, USA

I speak English, Gujarati and Urdu and I can definitely confirm that I think differently in English and not just because of the different words. English seems to me to be so formal, serious and self-centred - somehow 'cold' - whereas Asian languages are somehow warmer and have far more feeling. They are also more family-centred and less selfish. And when I want to vent and let off steam, I always do it in Gujerati!
Bilal Patel, London, UK

I think it does. At least in my case. I have lived most of my life in Kanpur, UP, India. I speak Hindi, Tamil, and English. My mother tongue is Tamil. The synthesis of these three languages and the fact that I was brought in a place where the native language is Hindi puts me in a unique position. I don't think the way the north Indians do nor the way the south Indians do. But, I think that to ascribe this just to the languages we speak is an incomplete conclusion. Maybe language plays a much smaller role when compared to how we were brought up and so on and so forth.
Navaneetha Vaidhyanathan, USA


The most important thing is the mother tongue

Rabindra Raj Giri, Nepal
It is not a matter of speaking more than one language. In my observation and experience, the language which we use has great impact in our ways of thinking and expressions. The most important thing is the mother tongue. The ability in expressing our ideas and feelings without any difficulty (in other words in natural way) has great importance. One's native language plays the most important role in this case. Different languages have different ways of expressions and ultimately shapes one's mind to express in that way. Thus, one's mother tongue plays crucial role in the ways one's thinking and expressions.
Rabindra Raj Giri, Nepal

I was born in Hong Kong. Cantonese is my first language, and English is my second, then Mandarin is my third. To speak to a Hong Kong person, I mix both Cantonese and English. It depends on the person who I am speaking to. If I speak to a Cantonese who doesn't speak English at all, then I will speak only Cantonese. I think it is being polite to speak a common language that both parties feel comfortable with. My character does not change when I speak English or Mandarin.
Tong, UK

I speak seven languages and yes, I do change the way I think and behave depending on which language I am speaking. For example, I never speak as direct nor as softly in Macedonian as I would when speaking English. An understanding of the culture associated with the language is very important as there are body movements, topics of discussion and manners that are connected with the proper communication of a language.
Nick, UK


When I speak Japanese I don't gesticulate at all

Ross, Italy
If you are decidedly fluent in another language, and if that language belongs to a very different cultural heritage than your own, you do, as it is, change your "figure", posture, your face expressions as well may change dramatically to adjust to the new background. When I speak Japanese I don't gesticulate at all, and concentrate on the level of politeness with respect to the person I am talking to; Italian words shift from an emotional tier to a more cerebral, class-conscious one: I couldn't really describe somebody else as "simpatico" in English as we do in Spain or Italy, because it's a whole concept behind one word that the English language lacks.
Ross, Italy

I am bilingual. Cantonese is my native tongue, while English is my second language. However, having been brought up in UK for most of my life since 9, I have grown to think & speak in both languages. Sometimes, if possible, I tend to speak mix (providing if the other person understands both languages). This is because there are certain terms & expressions in Cantonese (and vice versa) that are much more appropriate to use to match what I tries to express. The result is a clearer expression & understanding when you try to communicate.
Having said that I must say, thinking in Cantonese when adding sums & other calculations, it is much more faster than thinking in English!
Ngan, UK

I read, write and speak three languages: French, Spanish and English. When I am in that particular country I think in their language which makes me feel a part of the society. French is feminine and rosy, Spanish masculine but very poetic and English is more to the point, lacking the idea of male and female for its nouns. To me, old languages are richer in natural observations and philosophy closer to a Buddhist vision.
Dana, Spain

The language(s) we use directly effect the way we view the world. The influence of the language we use can be clearly observed in our style, in our appearance and our opinions. Of all the languages in the world, after mathematics, Arabic is the most precise, and logical of all languages. I speak English, Urdu, Arabic and Punjabi. And personally, I feel the most effective and comprehensive medium of communication is in Arabic. The complexities of life, of emotions and ideas are most deservingly met in Arabic.
Usman, Pakistan


Learning, reading and interpreting poetry in the English language was a lot easier process than doing the same thing in Hindi

Narinder Dogra, USA
I am fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Dogri and English. I have also learnt German, Japanese and French but I am very poor at them. I found during my high school days in India that learning, reading and interpreting poetry in the English language was a lot easier process than doing the same thing in Hindi. Was I thinking in English, I don't know? But when I do maths calculations orally, even now after spending thirty years in English speaking countries, I do it in Punjabi and it is a lot faster process.
Narinder Dogra, USA

Although English has been my medium of education I speak Tamil at home. Most of my thoughts are in pictures but when it comes to characters I think in English.
Nasser Hamid, Sri Lanka

In the global village, most people speak and are even fluent in more than language. So which language are we talking about? My hunch is that our behaviour and thought processes are shaped by what we in India call the mother tongue, the language that you learnt at your mother's knee.
Shantanu Dutta, India

Other than English, I speak Hindi and Gujarati. I live in Malaysia and have to speak Bahasa Malay in many situations. Many Malay words are derivatives of Sanskrit and Hindi is a modern version of it. I find many words and expressions in Malay are the same (or similar sounding) to Hindi or Gujarati and because I make that analogy, I think I understand the cultural expressions better than, perhaps some non-Malay people who live in Malaysia.
Dharmendra Nayee, Malaysia


The more you know the better informed you are

Ashok Manthina, USA
Language enhances one's ability to think and express. No language is superior to the other. Each has something unique to offer and learn from. The more you know the better informed you are.
Ashok Manthina, USA

It does not matter what language you SPEAK. Rather it depends what languages you can THINK in. I speak and think in Hindi, English and Tamil. I can speak some Russian and broken Mandarin. Plus I can communicate in Spanish. However, I cannot THINK in Spanish, Mandarin or Russian.
Rajiv Singh, India

I speak both French and English. When your primary language is English, speaking French feels very unnatural because of all the nasal and throaty sounds.
Ann, UK

I am fluent in two languages, English and Tamil. I tended to think in Tamil initially and now I tend to flit between the two.
Ravi, UK

We do not think in languages. We think in pictures. Languages are merely the verbal cognition of those pictures. Even the thinking of a word is a mental image of that word or a association of sound reflecting the word.
Des Currie, Umdloti, South Africa


Most business seems to be conducted in English

Peter K, Colorado, USA
Two years ago I backpacked through South East Asia and picked up a smattering of Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. They are quite similar and very easy languages to learn. Wherever I went, the moment I started to speak the language, people just smiled and opened up instantly. As regards English being the premier language, I was surprised by how much English is taught and spoken in South East Asia. There are a huge number of people who are well educated in the language and most business seems to be conducted in English. However, interestingly enough, the deal-making still depends on contacts and time spent together socialising. And when the locals socialise amongst themselves, guess which language they are using to communicate! Definitely NOT English!
Peter K, Colorado, USA

A wonderful topic indeed! I can speak four languages fluently and am learning a fifth one, Russian. A language is representative of the culture and, therefore, has patterns best suited for that culture. As one learns a new culture/language, the brain assimilates it with previous pictures of the world and generates a new composite picture. The new picture has elements of all the cultures. Many times, I have found myself to have a chain of thought which can be best put in a few sentences of one language followed by a few sentences of another language, so on and so forth.
Sunil Kumar, India/USA


I don't know what form those languages will take a couple of generations from now

Riaz Osmani, USA/Bangladesh
The "trend" of using English words and phrases when speaking Hindi, Bengali, Urdu etc. is complemented by the tendency to not seek out the appropriate words in those languages but also to not translate new and emerging English words and phrases as technology and scientific improvements exceed our capabilities. It is for this reason that languages in the Indian subcontinent will never attain the level of robustness to thrive in business and IT. In fact, I don't know what form those languages will take a couple of generations from now on when IT and globalisation becomes blessedly rampant.
Riaz Osmani, USA/Bangladesh

I believe that language does affect "character" as well as reflecting a "culture". A well-know language school instructs its students not to worry about immediate understanding but rather to develop the "pattern" of the language. Since the brain acts as a pattern-recognition-machine, this method is very effective. It is these new "patterns" that change the perspective when using the learned language and therefore I conclude that the "character" is changed to accommodate these patterns.

In addition, I believe that culture and language are mutually affecting which in turn means that using a language results in being affected by that culture. As to the spreading use of English, this will reflect most of the major cultures of the world since English is a hodgepodge of words taken from almost every other language. In addition, it is a "practical" language that grows from itself and other languages to reflect changing conditions without the need of "language police" i.e. if it works, use it, if not, forget it.
John Burkey, US/Netherlands

Being multi-lingual (I speak seven languages), I can definitely say that language affects moods. Firstly, speaking to someone in my native tongue makes the conversation faster, more concise and definitely more passionate. On the other hand, speaking to native English speakers (although my English speaking skills are probably on par with the locals if not better) definitely puts a limit on the topics we can cover. I have also noticed that the locals often have their minds made up about the language I speak even before I open my mouth. That's because they are associating race/ethnicity with language skills.

It's not necessarily a bad thing but I suppose that's how people associate and identify members of their own "tribe". English is pretty much the medium of education for the elite in non-English-speaking countries and in almost the entire developed world. This will actually improve the standards of the native non-English speakers in my opinion, as economic issues will force them to learn the language. In fact, I feel that some of the non-native English speakers from the Indian sub-continent have better English skills than a lot of Americans and Canadians some of whom cant spell to save their lives!
Samsher Verma, Canada


When I dream or daydream, I 'think' in English

Aingaran Pillai, UK
When I dream or daydream, I 'think' in English. The subconscious thoughts seem to be constructed in it. However, what language do deaf people dream in? How are their thoughts formed?
Aingaran Pillai, UK

Its really nice that at least someone picked this topic to debate. I can speak/ understand/ read/write four languages. But it never affected my original language and my culture-my mother tongue. And I must tell you that if any language which evolves from a mixture of two or many language is as sweet as other four in their original form. Take the example of Hindi in Bombay, it's entire different from Hindi spoken in Delhi. But it is widely used in Bollywood movies and enjoyed all over. As far as the topic of thriving of any language in IT is concern, programming in Hindi may prove very difficult but Sanskrit can prove bless for the IT industry. It just needs more attention from IT Gurus and Sanskrit Gurus.
Himanshu Jani, India/UK

Language does affect many things - essentially it is the tool of thoughts, and the limits of the language of limits of thoughts. In that sense, Sanskrit is arguably the language most structured and most able to provoke intuitive thinking. English has an advantage of being influenced by so many different languages, and thus becoming global.
Prerak Sheth, USA

I have studied several languages while at school, but I can only speak three languages fluently. I would definitely agree with those who say that the language(s) one speaks have an effect on one's thought processes. Just as Sunil Kumar of USA/India has mentioned here, I often find myself (when talking to family and others who can speak all the languages that I speak) saying a few sentences in one language and then a few in another. I have tried, on a few occasions to restrict myself to my native tongue, Telugu, but almost invariably I find that an English or Tamil expression makes its way into the conversation.

I have thought about the reasons behind this. While I am no linguist or psychologist, I feel that the reason is that different cultures often view the same matter in slightly but significantly different ways, and my approaches to various matters are usually somewhere between all the different ways of thinking because of the languages I speak.

But I don't think learning a language at school or college alone will ever give one a full insight into another culture; one has to listen to the language in everyday usage by its native speakers, speak it, and perhaps watch a few films in the language (which is how I learnt English more than any other way) to learn the language fully and also to comprehend some of the more subtle aspects of a culture.
V P Vijay, United Kingdom

It is not so much what language or how many languages you speak but the ability to speak any language and make yourself understood that counts. To learn any language at depth requires one to learn of and observe customs, especially if the home religion and culture of the language being learnt is vastly different than the individual's mother tongue. Not to be bothered to learn another language is almost as bad as being xenophobic.
Hazel, UK

I speak two languages fluently, and I can speak English, but my character doesn't changes when I change the languages. In my country the national identity and culture are very close. With respect the English young people can speak English better than old people, but when it comes to new words or technical words, English is not used in public life.
Pedro, Spain

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See also:

26 Sep 01 | Education
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
10 May 01 | South Asia
17 May 00 | South Asia
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