More Than Just Words: How Language Shapes The Way We Think

We express our thoughts by forming links between abstract concepts and present them coherently in linguistic structures.

Language is the basis upon which we form relations with one another. We express our thoughts by forming links between abstract concepts and present them coherently in linguistic structures. Our interactions are effectively shaped by how we communicate with each other and the situational context we present through nonverbal cues, and the way we communicate is often presented in the form of language.

Upon encountering obstacles that prevent the use of conventional methods of communication within or across social groups, we have found ways to overcome barriers by inventing new forms of communication or means to introduce translation. However, the focus on language from a linguistic perspective primarily concerns the objective descriptions of the methods we use to communicate, but not necessarily the psychological processes involved in formulating our responses, or how the way we utilise language may, in turn, influence thought. 

Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science, proposed several main areas of knowledge language may influence: 

  1. Space and time 
  2. Mathematics 
  3. Color Perception 
  4. Grammatical gender 
  5. Personal weight 

These areas all affect, consciously or otherwise, how we think about or make sense of the world around us and can partially be attributed to how we uuse language in our daily lives. While we may be unable to determine precisely how language influences the way we think, there are observable phenomena we can document to support such a theory explored through these different areas. 

Space and Time

While it may be thought that how we oriented ourselves in space and time was beyond the impact of language, evidence exists to insist that the language we use does play a role in influencing our perception of spatial and temporal orientation. In cultures such as the Thaayorre, time and space are more deeply woven into their understanding of their surroundings than in English or Chinese.

When daily greetings are constructed based on the significance of cardinal directions within the language, people tend to be more spatially oriented, as the constant use of language requires constant spatial awareness. Similarly, how our language demands us to write or read in a specific direction, for example, left to right or top to bottom, may also influence our temporal perception.

While we may perceive time as being centered on ourselves, speakers of languages that emphasize spatial orientation may find, instead, time being entered the landscape and that our orientation in space and time is irrelevant to the way space and time are inherently oriented. Not only does this examine the differences in how we perceive big concepts such as time and space because of linguistic diversity, but it also investigates how language may influence our cognitive abilities - spatial awareness, memory, and temporal orientation. 


Numbers are often perceived as a 'language of their own', with their structure and orientation drastically distinct from the linguistic systems we use to construct language. However, we can still pinpoint language's minor effects on our ability to understand simple mathematical concepts.

In some cultures, speakers are limited by a lack of vocabulary for certain words present in other languages and hence may be unable to understand certain concepts subsequently. This isn't because of a difference examined in cognitive ability. Still, rather than a linguistic deficit, certain abstract concepts that lack meaning in a language may be unable to translate coherently into an idea one can understand.

For example, in Pirahã, a language that only contains words for the numbers' one' and 'two' and classifies anything above 'many', speakers have trouble counting and recalling specific quantities above a certain number. While this may prove almost unthinkable to speakers in languages such as English or Chinese that have normalized the concept of having 'labels' for every number, we can see from various examples that our inherent mathematical ability, or more specifically, the limitations we encounter within an area of knowledge, may partially stem from a basis in language. This identifies a connection between our cognitive abilities and language and poses the question: What else do we not know because language limits us? 

Color Perception

The investigation of color has always been an exciting topic within almost all study areas, whether philosophy, science, psychology, or linguistics. Our interaction with the surrounding world is limited to our senses and how we interpret sensory information, whether acoustically, visually, semantically, or otherwise.

Color and everything else would exist regardless of our interaction with it. However, how we interpret incoming stimuli is limited by what we individually and collectively understand about it. Linguistically, many cultures view colors differently. Some languages label similar shades of colors intricately, and some may put boundaries scarcely throughout the spectrum, each with different ways of separating shades of colors linguistically.

For example, in English, we generally use the word 'blue' to describe all shades that fall under the assigned color domain; Even though there are precise terms for specific shades of blue, we rarely use them for casual descriptions in our daily lives. However, in Russian, speakers must differentiate between light blue 'goluboy' and dark blue 'siniy'. In an experiment conducted at MIT, researchers found that Russian speakers were 10% faster at distinguishing shades of blue compared to English speakers. From this, we can see that while the medium itself (i.e., color) remains unchanged, the way we assign linguistic terms and put boundaries between colors can reflect the how small distinguishing factors in the language we use in providing speakers with certain types of experiences can affect simple fundamental perceptual decisions we make. 

Grammatical Gender 

Grammatical gender exists across many different languages, where we categorize nouns or words as feminine, masculine, or neutral. While we may not think much of it, the 'gender' we assign to nouns can have imperceptibly small effects on how we view the idea or concept it refers to.

For instance, 'bridge' is grammatically feminine in German and grammatically masculine in Spanish. In an experiment, when asked to describe a 'bridge', researchers found that German speakers tend to use words such as 'beautiful' or 'elegant' - words stereotypically attributed to femininity, whereas Spanish speakers offered words like 'strong' or 'sturdy' - typically masculine words. This demonstrates that while grammatical gender may not play a significant role explicitly in everyday life, we should not be too dismissive in disregarding its role entirely in examining the relationship between language and thought. 

But what does this mean for languages without assigned grammatical gender? Does this imply that we somehow see the world differently? In some languages where grammatical gender does exist, younger generations have begun to protest for its erasure and promote the adoption of gender-neutral words in its stead. This is mainly tied to a history of prejudice and systematic oppression or discrimination reflect through the emphasis or omission of words for certain genders or groups, pushing people to reevaluate how language reflects cultural and historical values. 

Personal Weight

Are any words, in reality, translatable? With the rate at which technology is advancing to push forth scientific innovation, the ability to tackle language barriers through translation has been thought to be a finite solution.

If we take a closer look at exactly how the process of translation occurs, step by step, we may find, after all, that there are imprecise details that may stand to suggest that nothing is, in fact, precisely translatable. The meanings we associate with concepts can be roughly or intricately understood and transmitted between languages. Still, the deconstruction and reconstructions of linguistic structures allow small details to be potentially understood differently.

For instance, the way other language speakers may describe the same situation, through the ways they distinctly construct a sentence, could offer various meanings, implications, or associations attached, and hence would result in the potential for misinterpretation.

An example could be a description of a man knocking over a vase, with some speakers saying, "The man broke the vase" and others saying, "The vase broke". While both descriptions are linguistically and contextually valid, the blame, and hence personal weight assigned to the man in the situation, shifts between narratives based on how the sentences are constructed and interpreted. Thus, we can see that while linguistic diversity in the different ways we could describe the same situation offers almost limitless creative potential, how we utilize language and the meaning we assign to what we say, whether implicitly or otherwise, plays a significant role in guiding or influencing our reasoning, and hence how we think or feel about a particular situation. 

On the surface, language may be an inactive medium through which thoughts, ideas, and concepts are transmitted between individuals. Still, we have only just begun to understand the nature of the relationship between the language we use and our cognitive potential. How language shapes the way we think has been an academic field of interest we've been attempting to investigate for centuries, but ironically what prevents us from understanding more about our languages is language itself; English has been considered the dominant' scientific language' for a very long time, and most of what we know comes from English sources. This effectively excludes the majority of research and sources written or spoken in other languages and limits the scientific potential for discovering key aspects that may underlie the foundation of fundamental concepts in the field of linguistics.

With the decline in linguistic diversity, as languages slowly die out, we are losing cultural and historical remnants and potential knowledge in understanding the significance of language. The key to uncovering or discovering more about what role language plays in our lives and the relationship it shares with cognition and thought lies in breaking down language barriers and taking action to prevent the loss of linguistic diversity.