How does language shape how we think?

Around the 9th century, Charlemagne offered this thought about language: “To have a second language is to have a second soul.”

The language we speak can impact our basic abilities. It gives us a unique perspective on how we see the world. If a language doesn’t have words for specific numbers, for example, then we must speak in generalities instead of specificity.

Some languages offer a picture of reality that is very different from others. Certain objects may not be named. Concepts like falling may not be described in the language. Although no language actually stops someone from thinking anything, the words we use shape the experience because it guides us toward what we actually think about.

With Language, It Is All About the Timing

Let’s use English as an example here. In this language, speakers are obligated to discuss the timing of what they are thinking about.

  • Past Tense: I have eaten.
  • Present Tense: I am eating.
  • Future Tense: I will eat.

Although all three sentences describe the same action, the English language shapes how one thinks by looking at the verb and its timing.

Other languages have different demands. If you were to speak French, then you would be obligated to assign male or female attributes to many objects you may be thinking about.

Even those objects may have different gender assignments, based on the language being used. A bridge in Spanish is assigned as masculine, even though it is assigned as feminine in German.

How we speak, therefore, creates habits in how we think. That means language does more than shape our thought. It has the power to shape our values, beliefs, and morality.

That is the power of language. That is why being able to speak a second language is really like having a second doul.

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