“I’m more rational when thinking in German”, “Feminists are introducing a gender-neutral pronoun”, “Bilingual minds are different”. We’re bombarded with those claims, but are they actually correct?
Today, we’ll embark on a journey to debunk deep-rooted social myths and use scientific research to shed light with solid examples of the surprising fact that languages make you think differently.
- A language is an interface that impacts your worldview.
- What changes? Your perception of colour, time, quantity and social hierarchy, just to mention some examples.
- Bilingual brains look and operate differently.
- The context and experience might have higher relevancy in most human languages.
- A specific set of languages can give you a unique interface that translates into becoming more creative and seeing radical nuances.
Let’s start from the beginning.
The Wrong Idea of Human Languages
I went to the street to ask “What is a language?”, and this is what most people said: 1) a tool for communication, 2) made of words and rules.
Huh? That seems right, yet something doesn’t quite fit.
If the reality of languages was so simple, why there would be a massive 99.5% failure rate in language learning at school? Not nailing such an easy matter would put us at the intellectual level of a rat.
But we aren’t rats.
Many people aren’t aware that languages can be used to perpetuate discrimination, steal money, and limit opportunities in life, among others.
Let me share a few cases.
Take a look at the picture below. Do you see two flags with many yellow and red horizontal bars?
A visit to a train ticket machine in Madrid will bring you this beauty when tapping on the Change language button.
“But what’s special about those two similar flags?”, you might be wondering. And the surprise is:
They represent the same language.
If that looks absurd, let me tell you: It does! But that’s how the story goes: Spain split the same language (Catalan) into two as part of a strategy to make it disappear. We’ll leave it here for now.
A different example is that European citizens are losing €25,000,000,000 every single year because a few countries are interested in imposing their language on the rest. A very bare minimum of 1% of the United Kingdom’s GDP is directly sourced from this.
If Romans didn’t impose Latin on the territories they conquered, that’s because they didn’t expect the local population to engage in social and political matters, just to farm and pay taxes.
When the leader Atatürk changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic to Latin on January 1, 1929, that had absolutely nothing to do with the language despite the fake speech of increasing literacy rates. It was a political move to reduce and gain influence.
Languages are about communication, but also identity, culture, power, privileges, and economy, and you can’t split one from the others. Languages are a fascinating and unexpected case of Trojan horse.
Similarly, they aren’t a mere set of vocabulary and rules. Some languages use the same word for blue and green, so does that impact their speakers’ colour perception? And what do you think if I share that it’d sound weird for a Chinese person to ask you “How are you?” rather than “Have you eaten?”.
Before diving into how languages change how our brain works and the way we think, we need to quickly see two fascinating examples of the limits of language acquisition to get the full picture.
👋 Say hi to animals (and pseudo-animals) who learned to speak like a human.
The Human Who Couldn’t Speak Like the Rest: Werewolf?
Spoiler: This is the most documented werewolf case in history.
At the end of the 18th century in France, Victor of Aveyron was a boy believed to have lived alone in nature since an early age when he was found and captured.
He couldn’t speak a human language and displayed strange behaviours. Thus, some specialists saw him as “not yet fully human” and adopted him to teach how to talk, among others.
However, he made slow and little progress in language acquisition over the years.
“When many were debating what exactly distinguished human from animal, one of the most significant factors was the ability to learn a [human] language.”
There are several perspectives on the relationship between language and cognition, but the current scientific consensus is as follows:
Linguistic exercise helps develop and maintain the intellect and even changes the brain mass.
Haven’t you experienced that writing your thoughts helps you make decisions?
Roughly said, language is a muscle used for thought.
The Amazing Animals Who Were Able to Speak a Human Language
You know when your dog is hungry or happy, right? And in the Brazilian forest, cries of danger can be understood by different animals. Nothing new under the Sun if I say animal species can communicate with other ones.
We could add that communication is easier with those that have been domesticated, like dogs, or share some evolutionary paths, such as chimpanzees.
Yet, here we’re discussing human languages, aren’t we? Which are different due to our physiological variations, mostly regarding the brain and vocal cords.
While inter-species communication would sound interesting, can you imagine a horse as a conversation partner? Probably not.
Yet, some animals have been found to be able to speak a human language. Let’s explore two extraordinary examples:
Alex the Parrot (who died in 2007) was not only able to mimic human speech randomly. He learned and correctly used over one hundred English words in a two-way conversation. For example, to name items, their shape, colour, and material.
More fascinating is the case of Koko (who died in 2018), a gorilla who learned American Sign Language and was able to communicate using over 1,000+ signs with humans.
As a curious fact, some signs had to be modified because her thumbs are smaller than human ones.
Additionally, she could understand about 2,000 words of spoken English.
That’s not all. When a caregiver told Koko she had lost her baby, she made a crying gesture to express she was feeling sad about that. But did you know chimpanzees don’t associate crying with sadness? That empathetic response proved emotional intelligence.
Now, it’s time to get back to the human mind to blow the secrets Mr. Science holds for us. Will it prove languages makes us think differently?
Is a Bilingual Mind Different?
Actually, it is. A bilingual brain looks and operates in divergent ways.
So, what exactly is going on here?
Bilingual people display an increased activation in the brain region associated with cognitive skills.
Also, the brain areas associated with languages increase in size, yet that’s not a unique trait: If you’re a musician, some parts of your brain will be bigger than those of the average person. It’s a matter of practice and need.
One of the paths is this: Having to deal with different languages in your life implies your brain makes more decision efforts when you want to speak, and that makes you practice conflict management. We could say acquiring a second language helps you get better at multitasking.
Therefore, going for a new language looks like a 2×1 at the supermarket. And you get those positive hidden benefits even when learning in adulthood.
But not all languages are created equal. For example, Chinese characters train your visual recognition skills more than English letters. And it’s probably not a coincidence that speakers of tonal languages have an advantage in singing. After all, what countries are karaokes most famous in?
This news inevitably leads us to the next question.
Are Polyglots Smarter?
We like to see other people who master difficult skills we don’t possess. Probably that’s why Ryan Hale has two million followers on TikTok despite uploading absurd videos. He enters an anonymous video chat and records himself surprising others by talking in their language.
I’m guilty of watching Youtube videos of random guys trying to beat the world record for the shortest time to solve the Rubik’s Cube (if you’re curious: 3.13 seconds as of now).
Many people believe polyglots look smarter, but are they?
Well, a Nobel Prize winner is not necessarily a good cook and a web developer might suck at graphic design.
So, I’d rather ask myself: Why did they learn multiple languages in the first place? Then, the answer becomes quite straightforward: because of need, passion, or a combination of both.
I asked my friend José Luis how he succeeded to get to a higher level than most native speakers of Japanese, and his reply was quite understandable: He liked the language and gained exposure to subjects he liked.
When, some years ago, we both started learning the same language (another one), I remember he made quicker progress at first. That’s because he was using a smarter approach: practice, focus on vocabulary and consume the language.
You can see an interesting parallelism with business: Successful entrepreneurs play against statistics since most of them have already failed in a venture before.
People who speak several or many languages aren’t smarter. And those who claim they’re bad at languages are most likely to have been victims of public education, experience a low need, or a combination of causes.
If you implement the right methods and get enough motivation, you can become a polyglot, too. But while it’s a useful label in some places and situations, we aren’t special anyhow; we just love languages.
Yes, learning a language poses challenges that equip you with plenty of tools for your personal development, like more resistance to frustration and boosting your self-confidence. But…
If you want to get better at multitasking or improve your memorisation skills, life has many paths to get to the same destination. Pursue what you love, be ambitious, persistent, and the rest will come.
What I agree with is that learning languages can make you more socially intelligent because languages are a social phenomenon. Also, you can get deeper insights into a different culture and help you make friends more easily.
Concrete examples between languages are coming. Scroll down.
Does Language Influence Your Personality?
Some people claim they feel slightly different when communicating in different languages. For example, claiming they’re more polite in English, logical in German, or sound softer in Thai.
Does that mean a new language gives you a split personality?
A possible explanation is confidence. You might be more extroverted, as well as look more confident, in a language you master. And to relate to this, haven’t you ever heard a student confessing “I speak better English when I’m drunk”?
In my case, a different perspective is I feel funnier in Spanish. The reason? I own a larger vocabulary to trigger emotions in people and am more agile to think. So, when improvising, I can focus a bit more on the content and delivery.
Alright, this reasoning sounds weak, or at least very incomplete. I can do better. Let’s bring in the artillery:
Languages don’t produce schizophrenic symptoms, but there’s a fascinating situation here: being bilingual bicultural. This is the idea that different languages activate a set of rules and personality traits belonging to different cultures.
Let me give you an example of the cultural accommodation hypothesis:
English doesn’t allow you to express yourself with the same freedom as in other languages. For instance:
Swearwords exist in all languages, but they can easily comfort you in Catalan. Someone insulting you can be the friendliest person you’ve ever met, meanwhile I’d be slapped in the face if the conversation took place in English.
Swearwords in Catalan don’t feel like bad words and plenty of them are a sort of sweet swearwords. They can’t be translated into other languages without embedding a negative feeling, and it’d take you some time to use them properly if I told you the meaning.
Intrigued? Here’s a more scientific explanation:
Language is culture, and culture is language (…). A study conducted in 2018 by Luna, Ringberg, and Peracchio found that people who are bilingual and proficient in both languages but not exposed to another culture are in contrast with bicultural bilinguals who understand the culture of the language they’re speaking. Therefore, the possible reason why people feel different when speaking different languages is because different languages activate different cultural norms, and it isn’t present in monocultural bilinguals.
On Emotion and Perception in Different Languages
Nelson Mandela didn’t say the following, yet it’s still interesting:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Words in a language you’ve intimated more with will resonate more with you. We tend to overestimate how rational we’re and prefer to pretend our past is less relevant.
But, to be concrete about the question “Does a language make you think differently?”, let’s dive into a series of examples by language.
Do Languages Shape Your Thoughts? The Surprising Examples
Are you either tamed or the tamer? In other words: Do languages limit and control thought?
George Orwell threw that possibility with the made-up Newspeak in his dystopian novel 1984. And that idea seems to have struck a chord because we’ve seen many feminists fighting for linguistic reforms since the 60s, from replacing businessman with businessperson to creating gender-neutral pronouns like the officialised hen in Swedish from 2022.
A seed for these efforts could be the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which states a language influences its speakers’ worldview and cognition.
Let’s put that theory to the test.
In Italian and Russian, there’s no word for blue. You have to make a mandatory distinction between lighter blue (azzurro) and darker blue (blu). And in ancient Chinese, green and blue were expressed with the same word (青 qīng). Does that mean Russians have superpowers to distinguish the chromatic colours and Chinese were half-blind?
Tribes of the Sahara desert have many words in Arabic to distinguish camels while we have only one in English: camel. To make a parallelism, an example would be the distinction we make between pig and piglet based on age, or horse and mare based on sex. Then, Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, like nutaryuk (fresh snow) and muruaneq (soft deep snow).
Ok, I’ll acknowledge an Inuit will probably have an easier time at perceiving the difference between snow types. But in my defense, I’ll say that’s not because of the language, but due to usefulness or mandatory habit of distinguishing them.
When I was a kid, I used melon as a generic term to mean watermelon and any other kind. My grandfather, who was a farmer, used to correct me. But I didn’t really care and kept using a generic word.
This is more frequent in languages like Chinese. While it has different words to name a car and bike, you can refer to both in the same way (车 chē). We could interpret this as a vehicle, yet that’d sound quite weird in English. And to give an example in Esperanto, you can use skribilo to name any object to write even if some specific words exist.
The big question: What if it’s true that languages make us think differently? And how much the different words change our reality?
Whether you’ll ever enroll in a course on creativity techniques, an important takeaway you’ll get is that gaining exposure to different ideas or mixing them will boost your creativity. And a polyglot has a sided advantage in linguistic materials to think creatively: E.g., while you have to learn purse by heart in English, 钱包 qián bāo conveys the idea of a money container.
Anyways, later research has found that the implications Sapir–Whorf popularised are weak in practice.
So that’s it? Were feminists just wrong all this time and we should revert the exaggerated changes?
Hold the horses, my friend, because this story can’t end yet.
In an experiment, German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, and fragile, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, and strong. Both languages have a grammatical gender, meaning a bridge is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, and this seemed to have an impact on the semantic association. Further exploration of other words and languages took place, leading to the same conclusion.
In 2008, an MIT study discovered the Piraha language seems to not have numbers (one, two, three…), just the words a few and more, so they’re less trained to keep track of quantities.
People speaking different languages will pay attention to different things depending on what their language requires them to do. Compare The glass has broken with You broke the glass. While witnessing the same event, speakers of different languages will see and remember different facts, and this might have a relation to punishment.
For example, a Chinese speaker won’t greet a friend with How are you?, but will e.g. rather say Have you eaten? (你吃饭了吗). And when a Chinese father says goodbye to his daughter, who’s about to go to school, not with Have a nice day but suggesting Take care (小心). The focus is different. A Chinese person would find it weird to say Have a nice day.
What’s fascinating about this is that languages predispose you to think in specific ways. And if you raise your awareness on this, that realisation might help you with problem-solving and decision-making.
My friend Héctor has a girlfriend who’s mute. After learning sign language, his personal insight was he didn’t need so much bullshit to communicate well (these are his own words)
Similarly, the first political leaders in post-dictatorial Spain used many words in their speeches to sound more educated. Yet, it’s well-researched that using more common words makes the content more engaging and better understood. Do you understand now why university writing uses specific unnecessary language? To pretend you’re smarter and belong to an elite.
While feminism might have overestimated how important words are, a low impact doesn’t imply no relevancy. From my perspective, the benefit from the language reform movement might have mostly been an instrument to get attention than attain direct impact.
Words: The Playground for Manipulation
I’ll take a step back to give you some examples that the alteration of thought and perception can easily happen even without chasing another language:
Having a term to make tangible an idea increases how real and valuable that is. For example, childhood is not a natural reality as it might look but a modern invention. And after the word, people made the intersubjective lie bigger by piling up layers of artificiality, like laws, until we got to the point of believing it’s natural, unquestionable, and desirable. We live in a social construction.
The best of all is making up new words is free! That’s why politicians use this resource so much.
For instance, a budget request to improve Barcelona’s airport was raised for years. Then, when a new Spanish central party took power with the votes from Catalan parties, it decided to deliver its promise. But instead of giving money, it changed the airport’s name to Josep Tarradellas… so that the public opinion believed something was being done.
When I was a kid, I read a book called El nom fa la cosa (The name makes the thing), which seems to be a valid perspective. Psychology discovered that categorising ourselves with a label changes our behaviour. For example, if you tell yourself you’re a healthy person, you’ll be more likely to go to the gym than if your inner speech is that you want to lose fat.
Obviously, others can use this same device to influence our acts and thoughts.
When Europe was in the midst of an economic crisis some years ago, Spain’s prime minister didn’t say we were in a crisis. Instead, he communicated we were experiencing negative growth.
That term is masterful because the human mind is unable to negate reality. Negating growth is like asking you not to think of the pink elephant in the room, meaning you’ll perceive growth. That way, the audience got the impression the situation is not so bad.
For a similar reason, poets in languages where some basic words are created by negation make up new words to manipulate perception. As an example, in Esperanto, left literally means the opposite of right, so some authors replace maldekstra (left) with liva (same meaning, different perception).
Also, the word bad means the opposite of good, so you can find malbona being replaced as mava.
By the way, are you in favour or against abortion? Social movements use a different perspective: Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life. By doing that, they put the audience on a playing field that they’re more likely to win. It’s like the activists were an ancient army that created an artificial hill to get an unfair advantage.
Reading and comparing newspapers is also a great source to learn how you’ve been cheated. For example, some use words that trigger emotions, while others manipulate the intensity of an event. For example, it’s not the same saying The car hit than The car crashed. As you know, attention is the currency of the 21st century, or so people say.
When I Started to Feel a Language Makes You Think Differently
When I learned web development in Python (a programming language), I started to realise I had acquired mental models to develop my logical thinking. For example, I could recognise the elements of my thinking and structure my thoughts better through conditional statements, for example as if I was coding loops.
Years later, when I started to learn about UX/UI (a discipline to understand and create user experiences), I saw how meaningful interfaces are and how much psychology can explain about them.
For example, if you were using Netflix and had a red button stating Cancel Subscription on its home, you’d be much more likely to stop paying. And when you finish a series episode, the platform takes the decision for you to stay in front of your device (binge-watching).
However, while these two experiences (coding and UX/UI) are definitely interesting to learn, they aren’t strictly languages as we know them.
That changed when I learned Esperanto, the most popular planned language in the world. Such an was amazing trip. It literally works like LEGO pieces, and changes the way you think and see the world. I wish I could learn it again.
Anything that can be imagined can be expressed and from different angles. Let’s quickly see how it operates:
Level #1: crawling.
san is the concept of health, but it’s not a word yet.
- -o means thing. Whatever ends with -o is a thing, for example sano (health), belo (beauty).
- -a means quality → sana (healthy), bela (beautiful)…
Alright, you apply this to anything you see: tablo (table), kafo (coffee), whatever.
Level #2: walking.
- mal- means opposite → malsano (“the opposite to health” = sickness), malsana (“the opposite of healthy” = ill).
- -ul- means person → malsanulo (“the person who is the opposite of healthy” = pacient). Did you guess this one?
- -ej- means place → malsanulejo (“the place for people the opposite of healthy” = hospital).
A chair is not a chair anymore, but a tool to seat. It was shocking to realise I had acquired a functional relationship with the world!
You have the freedom to reuse the LEGO pieces to whatever you can imagine, and you have the certainty everyone will understand you. Since you multiply your vocabulary, with just 500 basic concept words like san, you hold a fluent conversation.
Level #3: running.
- -i means action → sani (“the action of the health” = to be healthy)
- -ig- means to make → sanigi (“the action of making healthy” = to heal)
- -il- means tool → sanigilo (“the tool to make healthy” = medicine)
- -ist- means professional → sanigisto (“the professional that makes health” = doctor).
The list goes on, but you get it, right? With national languages, you have to learn by heart and repeat, and the best you can usually do is to pick up some patterns you encounter along the way. But with Esperanto, you just need to imagine the world using its opening building blocks.
Esperanto is the most agglutinative language in the world.
In fact, since I learned it, I feel like all other languages are primitive because Esperanto is the only one in which I can give free rein to my thoughts.
To make a cross-cultural comparison, let’s recap a previous example trying to complete the above sentence:
I see pigs and piglets, I also see camels and ______.
You can’t. And making your best attempt, it’ll sound weird. National languages are tied to a geographic culture.
In Esperanto, you have words for every unthinkable idea (how much I’ve laughed making up concepts with José!) and no concept sounds unnatural. We don’t even have an accent, so you aren’t discriminated by your origin.
If I think about it, the internationality of Esperanto is quite brutal. There are not too many speakers, but you get the most radical cultural divings, at least regarding the huge mixes. For example, you attend an event with just some hundreds or thousands of participants but they are from nearly everywhere in the world. You ask “Where are you from?” and discover countries that exist and you had no idea about.
How to see reality from different perspectives? Experiencing at least one atypical language, learning different disciplines and gaining exposure to new experiences might be a good recommendation.
We’ve learned a lot about the psychology of languages, and why we should open our concept of what languages are. They are interfaces that make us think differently.
If our education systems were more innovative, basic coding (e.g., using Python) would be a skill far more important to be taught than trigonometry for the average citizen. Also, some fundamental UX/UI course would help us recognise some external influence and limit it. Also, Esperanto could help us speed up the time to learn a first foreign language by up to 50% while also increasing our likelihood to stick to the learning of any other language by about 1/3.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and wish it helped you discover what nobody might have told you about languages.
Reality builder, marketing passionate and entrepreneur.