How Language Learning Affects Thought and Behavior

Learning a language is a curiously powerful process. It’s like taking a journey through a strange land full of obstacles, surprises and discoveries. Through study, instruction or experience, one who was previously incapable of understanding the meaningless utterances of others becomes able to make sense of and replicate their words, phrases and syntax. The effects can be quite dramatic, as even a modicum of proficiency opens up new opportunities to communicate and exchange feelings and ideas.

But even as a new language is being acquired, so are a variety of unfamiliar concepts, from assigning gender to inanimate objects to using a single tense for past, present and future. Learning a language goes beyond memorizing vocabulary and gaining knowledge of proper grammar; it often requires adopting an entirely new way of thinking. And as one’s thought patterns change, behavior may also be modified, as the following examples aptly demonstrate.

Taking on a New Identity

In English, there is only one word, “I,” available to describe one’s self as the person who is speaking or writing. Similarly, “you” is the only term used to identify the person who is being addressed. Many other languages, however, have male or female versions of those words. Some, such as Japanese, also have formal and familiar versions, too; the “you and I” used by a young man planning a trip with his fishing buddy are very different from those he would use when asking his employer for a week off.

Learning a new language invariably forces us to think of ourselves and our world differently. The American humorist Mark Twain once complained about how German speakers made turnips female and young maidens neuter, yet English is one of the few European languages that does not assign feminine and masculine characters to inanimate objects. To master many languages, it is therefore necessary to reconsider the role of gender beyond basic sexual attributes.

In discussing family relations, a new vernacular may force a higher level of specificity upon the language learner. Special emphasis is often placed on age, making it necessary to speak of younger brothers or sisters in different terms than older ones. In Chinese, the English term “uncle” (伯父) is typically refined to mean father’s younger brother (叔父), or father’s elder brother (大爷), or husband of father’s sister (姑夫), or mother’s brother (舅父), etc.

Clearly, this role of language in defining who we and others are must have a profound affect on individual identity. This explains, at least in part, why those who are bilingual can so often be heard saying that they “feel like a different person” when speaking their second language.

A Matter of Time

Of the many ways languages can be categorized, perhaps one of the most impactful is the way in which they treat the notion of time. “Tensed languages,” like Greek and English, make clear distinctions between the past, present and future, whereas “tenseless languages,” such as Indonesian and Chinese, employ the same phrasing in describing the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

This is much more than a simple matter of grammar. It goes to the very heart of how each of us perceives the passage of time and our relative place in its continuum. Greek, for example, has eight separate tenses to calibrate not only an event’s position in time but also its “aspect”—the nature of an action with respect to its beginning, duration, completion or repetition.

The same is true of English, which also reveals cultural nuances in the use of its tenses. A Harvard student might innocently ask, “Did the bell ring yet?” That use of past tense would most likely send prickles up the spine of an Oxford student, who would connect the present to the event and ask, “Has the bell rung yet?” While English tenses enable significant distinctions to be made between the deep past and the more immediate past, they also help the United States and England remain “two nations separated by a common language.”

On the other hand, not having a past tense at all actually offers some advantages. It allows modern citizens of Beijing to be much more connected to the dynasties of China’s history, as if the events of bygone centuries are still occurring. And by the same token, the lack of a future tense means “the future is now” rather than detached from the present and waiting at some distant time ahead.

Influences on Specific Behaviors

In 2011, Yale University behavioral economist Keith Chen made a bold observation. His detailed analysis of data from OECD countries indicated that in places where tenseless languages were the mother tongue, personal savings rates tended to be higher—as much as 5 percent higher on average. More savings, he points out, translate into greater prosperity for those countries and more secure retirements for their citizens.

And Chen’s theorizing has not stopped there. He has applied his methodology to other social segments and found that speaking a futureless language affects decision-making on other levels, too. Specifically, he says futureless language speakers are “20~24% less likely to smoke, 13~17% less likely to be obese and 21% more likely to use condoms.”

Although Chen’s research is ongoing, he has already gained a crowd of enthusiastic followers, some of whom are delving deeper into the relationship between language and behavior in other areas. For one, Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky has written on how a certain Australian Aboriginal community uses compass directions in place of “left” or “right.” Their heightened awareness of spatial relations makes them “remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.”

Boroditsky notes that about a third of the world’s languages address space in absolute terms rather than the relative ones used in English. Directions such as “left” and “right” or “back” and “front” are egocentric, relying on the orientation of the individual. It is quite possible that emphasis on geographic directions is the key to being better able to navigate new terrains and avoid getting lost.

The Foreignness of Languages

Every language is a filter that shows us what’s relevant and what’s not with respect to the people who speak it. Several Asian languages have multiple words for “rice” to differentiate the raw grain from the cooked version as well as from what grows in the paddy before threshing. The Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53 ways to describe “snow.” And Sanskrit has 96 words for “love,” while ancient Persian has 80, indicating that perhaps something has been lost as newer languages have evolved from their ancient roots.

Interestingly enough, even when languages share the same words, their interpretation can still be quite different. Both English and Japanese both have words for “green” (緑色), but despite the exact same three hues of the spectrum present on Los Angeles streets, don’t tell someone in Tokyo that the traffic light colors there are anything other than 赤/黄/青 (red/yellow/blue). By the same token, Japanese speakers must refrain from telling their Western friends that they live in a マンション or “mansion”—a loan word that’s come to mean “condominium” in the land of the rising sun.

Thought, behavior and language are so closely interrelated that knowing one language can actually interfere with learning a new one, especially when presuppositions get in the way. For that reason, perhaps the best advice for anyone learning a foreign tongue is to treat it as something truly foreign—completely unknown and never before experienced. Accepting a language as it is, going with its unique flow, quite often provides the opportunity to experience the world in a totally new and different way.

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