Every language has its own distinct differences and quirks — be these structural, grammatical, stylistic, or other. Polyglots enjoy getting to grips with these linguistic variations, understanding the roots of different languages, and learning how they’re put together, pronounced, and how they read meaning into the complex and individual worlds of their speakers.
However, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the diverse and “dazzling array of languages” used by humans to communicate with one another may have a far more significant effect on our inner thoughts and perception of the world than we may realise.
Can the language you speak affect the way you think?
“Each language differs from the next in innumerable ways — from obvious differences in pronunciation and vocabulary to more subtle differences in grammar,” they write. “For example, to say that ‘someone ate the cheese’ in English, we must include tense — the fact that the event happened in the past. In Russian, the verb would also have to include whether the cheese-eater was male or female, and whether said cheese-eater ate all of the cheese or just a portion of it. Speakers of different languages have to attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world in order to use their language properly. ”
One of the most obvious differences between languages is that many assign different nouns a gender, while English does not. This gendered approach to communication appears to affect how a speaker of such a language structures their thoughts and perceptions, so much so that they perceive similarities between objects and people of the same gender — even when given tasks are performed in English (a grammatically genderless language), visually (for example, comparing different images), or while the researchers attempted to create distractions.
These biases are so strong that they appear to be independent of other cultural factors: it seems that cross-linguistic differences in thought can be produced by grammatical differences alone.
“It’s striking that even a fluke of grammar — the nearly arbitrary assignment of a noun to be masculine or feminine — can have an effect on how people think about things in the world,” add the researchers. “Considering the many ways in which languages differ, our findings suggest that the private mental lives of people who speak different languages may differ much more than previously thought. In short, speakers of different languages behave differently in a wide range of cognitive tasks in ways that are consistent with the grammatical distinctions made in their languages. ”
So, what does this all mean? Well, while the aforementioned polyglot might learn French as a hobby, even if they became fluent enough as to be indistinguishable from a native speaker, they may never think in quite the same way as someone born and raised speaking French. While at its heart language may merely act as a tool to express ourselves to those around us, our chosen variation of language leaves an indelible mark on our minds, causing us to see the world in a different way.