ScienceSpiegeloog 403: Global

A Tool for Thinking – How language shapes thought

By April 3, 2020 No Comments

If you are a psychology student, there is a good chance that you have heard about the many ways people can be influenced by linguistic cues – often without them noticing it. After all, we are all biased human beings, and the language we speak fundamentally contributes to this bias. But is this the right way to think about language?

If you are a psychology student, there is a good chance that you have heard about the many ways people can be influenced by linguistic cues – often without them noticing it. After all, we are all biased human beings, and the language we speak fundamentally contributes to this bias. But is this the right way to think about language?

Consider a yoghurt that has 10% fat. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? If you are someone who tries to avoid fatty foods, then this yoghurt probably doesn’t seem appealing to you. But what about the yoghurt that is 90% fat-free? If you are like most people, then you will have a more positive attitude towards this yoghurt, even though it is clear that the two yoghurts have the identical amount of fat in them – the information about the fat content is merely phrased differently (Kahneman, 2011).

This is one of the most well-known methods to influence people through language. When you want to persuade someone about a certain concept, just frame the concept in a highly positive way. For example, if you are a politician who wants to implement a government program that legalizes handguns in The Netherlands, just call it the ‘Peace and Prosperity Program’. What would the average citizen say if you ask them whether they are for or against ‘peace and prosperity’?

Of course, it’s not all that easy. For topics towards which people already have a strong attitude, framing is not likely to be successful; and even in less important scenarios people might detect your strategy – especially considering that more and more people are becoming aware of how framing works.

“Little details in how something is phrased or details which are inherent in the language itself can have quite significant effects on our attitudes and perceptions.”

But let’s look at another way language can influence us: let’s assume you are looking at a photo of a bridge, and you are asked to describe it. Depending on which language you speak you will describe it very differently. As it turns out, a simple detail, namely the grammatical gender of the word “bridge” influences speakers of different languages to describe the bridge in either more masculine or feminine terms. German speakers, who see the bridge (‘die Brücke’) as grammatically feminine, are more likely to state that it is elegant or beautiful; while Spanish speakers, who view the bridge (‘el puente’) as masculine, are more likely to say that the bridge is strong or big (Boroditsky & Schmidt, 2000).

What can we conclude from these findings? Clearly, language can distort our thinking on a fundamental level, letting us see the world in a very subjective way. Little details in how something is phrased or details which are inherent in the language itself can have quite significant effects on our attitudes and perceptions. But of course, this is only one side of the story.

Language can twist and manipulate, but it’s also what makes complex thinking possible in the first place. How could you have the thoughts that I am giving you right now if you didn’t know any language? Here we get closer to what language truly is: not just a communication tool, but a thinking tool as well. It enables you to organize information in your brain. For example, a diagram – another thinking tool – helps you to understand the relationship between variables in a specific way that is easy to understand. Without diagrams it would be much harder to get a grasp of our complex world (Dennett, 2013).

In this way you could see mathematics as another thinking tool. Consider the Pirahã, an indigenous group of people in the Amazon forest of Brazil. In their system of thought, regular numbers don’t exist. Instead, they only have words for one, two, and many. But how are these people able to do basic calculations? How could they make sure that they are not tricked when others are trading with them, for example? As it turns out, they can’t, for the most part; and even if they learned another language as adults, calculation will remain very hard for them – simply because they lack the mental tool to do so (Everett, 2012).

“The simple fact that Welsh words for numbers are harder to spell and pronounce affects the capacity to memorize them”

Yet, the effects of thinking tools can be much more subtle than this. For example, people from Wales consistently score lower on number memorization tasks than people from England. How could this be? Both groups are culturally very similar and both have standard western number systems. Looking closely, one will notice that numbers in Welsh are much longer and spelled differently; and this is indeed the critical point. The simple fact that Welsh words for numbers are harder to spell and pronounce affects the capacity to memorize them (Ellis & Hennelly, 1980).

If some languages are better tools for thinking than others, shouldn’t it be possible to construct a language that is specifically designed for thinking efficiently? When I first pondered over this question, I had no clue that others already had the exact same thought before me – and actually created this language. Lojban, as it is called, was designed to facilitate clear thinking and communication, founded upon the principles of logic. It was intended to be culturally neutral and unambiguous, and it even has linguistic features that allow users to create millions of new words only based on its 1300 root words. Probably the easiest example of Lojban´s unambiguity is the word ‘nobody’. In English, the word ‘nobody’ is characterised by the fact that it doesn’t refer to anyone, but the word is nevertheless used in the same way as other words that in fact do refer to someone; As a consequence, the speaker could actually use ‘nobody’ in order to refer to someone (e.g. if someone´s name is ‘nobody’), which in turn makes it possible to create nonsensical text construction. The Lojban language, however, has rules that make such contradictions impossible (Cowan, 2016).

Would a child who is raised with the Lojban language indeed be able to think more clearly? Right now, no one knows. Yet, after thousands of years of rather passive linguistic evolution, it makes sense for us to actively create and improve mental tools ourselves, in order to make us even better thinkers and communicators.

In short, language can limit and distort your thinking, but it is also what enables and facilitates thought to begin with. You might now argue that there is not much of a difference between these two sides, and you would be right. They are two sides of the same coin. And yet, whether you see language as one or the other can influence your thinking as well. <<

References

– Boroditsky, L. & Schmidt, L. A. (2000). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 22(22), 61-79.
– Cowan, J. W. (2016). The Lojban Language. Logical Language Group.
– Dennett, D. (2013). Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. W. W. Norton & Company.
– Ellis, N. C. & Hennelly, R. A. (1980). A bilingual word‐length effect: Implications for intelligence testing and the relative ease of mental calculation in Welsh and English. British Journal of Psychology, 74(1), 43-51.
– Everett, D. (2012). Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language. Current Anthropology, 46(4), 621-646.
– Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Consider a yoghurt that has 10% fat. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? If you are someone who tries to avoid fatty foods, then this yoghurt probably doesn’t seem appealing to you. But what about the yoghurt that is 90% fat-free? If you are like most people, then you will have a more positive attitude towards this yoghurt, even though it is clear that the two yoghurts have the identical amount of fat in them – the information about the fat content is merely phrased differently (Kahneman, 2011).

This is one of the most well-known methods to influence people through language. When you want to persuade someone about a certain concept, just frame the concept in a highly positive way. For example, if you are a politician who wants to implement a government program that legalizes handguns in The Netherlands, just call it the ‘Peace and Prosperity Program’. What would the average citizen say if you ask them whether they are for or against ‘peace and prosperity’?

Of course, it’s not all that easy. For topics towards which people already have a strong attitude, framing is not likely to be successful; and even in less important scenarios people might detect your strategy – especially considering that more and more people are becoming aware of how framing works.

“Little details in how something is phrased or details which are inherent in the language itself can have quite significant effects on our attitudes and perceptions.”

But let’s look at another way language can influence us: let’s assume you are looking at a photo of a bridge, and you are asked to describe it. Depending on which language you speak you will describe it very differently. As it turns out, a simple detail, namely the grammatical gender of the word “bridge” influences speakers of different languages to describe the bridge in either more masculine or feminine terms. German speakers, who see the bridge (‘die Brücke’) as grammatically feminine, are more likely to state that it is elegant or beautiful; while Spanish speakers, who view the bridge (‘el puente’) as masculine, are more likely to say that the bridge is strong or big (Boroditsky & Schmidt, 2000).

What can we conclude from these findings? Clearly, language can distort our thinking on a fundamental level, letting us see the world in a very subjective way. Little details in how something is phrased or details which are inherent in the language itself can have quite significant effects on our attitudes and perceptions. But of course, this is only one side of the story.

Language can twist and manipulate, but it’s also what makes complex thinking possible in the first place. How could you have the thoughts that I am giving you right now if you didn’t know any language? Here we get closer to what language truly is: not just a communication tool, but a thinking tool as well. It enables you to organize information in your brain. For example, a diagram – another thinking tool – helps you to understand the relationship between variables in a specific way that is easy to understand. Without diagrams it would be much harder to get a grasp of our complex world (Dennett, 2013).

In this way you could see mathematics as another thinking tool. Consider the Pirahã, an indigenous group of people in the Amazon forest of Brazil. In their system of thought, regular numbers don’t exist. Instead, they only have words for one, two, and many. But how are these people able to do basic calculations? How could they make sure that they are not tricked when others are trading with them, for example? As it turns out, they can’t, for the most part; and even if they learned another language as adults, calculation will remain very hard for them – simply because they lack the mental tool to do so (Everett, 2012).

“The simple fact that Welsh words for numbers are harder to spell and pronounce affects the capacity to memorize them”

Yet, the effects of thinking tools can be much more subtle than this. For example, people from Wales consistently score lower on number memorization tasks than people from England. How could this be? Both groups are culturally very similar and both have standard western number systems. Looking closely, one will notice that numbers in Welsh are much longer and spelled differently; and this is indeed the critical point. The simple fact that Welsh words for numbers are harder to spell and pronounce affects the capacity to memorize them (Ellis & Hennelly, 1980).

If some languages are better tools for thinking than others, shouldn’t it be possible to construct a language that is specifically designed for thinking efficiently? When I first pondered over this question, I had no clue that others already had the exact same thought before me – and actually created this language. Lojban, as it is called, was designed to facilitate clear thinking and communication, founded upon the principles of logic. It was intended to be culturally neutral and unambiguous, and it even has linguistic features that allow users to create millions of new words only based on its 1300 root words. Probably the easiest example of Lojban´s unambiguity is the word ‘nobody’. In English, the word ‘nobody’ is characterised by the fact that it doesn’t refer to anyone, but the word is nevertheless used in the same way as other words that in fact do refer to someone; As a consequence, the speaker could actually use ‘nobody’ in order to refer to someone (e.g. if someone´s name is ‘nobody’), which in turn makes it possible to create nonsensical text construction. The Lojban language, however, has rules that make such contradictions impossible (Cowan, 2016).

Would a child who is raised with the Lojban language indeed be able to think more clearly? Right now, no one knows. Yet, after thousands of years of rather passive linguistic evolution, it makes sense for us to actively create and improve mental tools ourselves, in order to make us even better thinkers and communicators.

In short, language can limit and distort your thinking, but it is also what enables and facilitates thought to begin with. You might now argue that there is not much of a difference between these two sides, and you would be right. They are two sides of the same coin. And yet, whether you see language as one or the other can influence your thinking as well. <<

References

– Boroditsky, L. & Schmidt, L. A. (2000). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 22(22), 61-79.
– Cowan, J. W. (2016). The Lojban Language. Logical Language Group.
– Dennett, D. (2013). Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. W. W. Norton & Company.
– Ellis, N. C. & Hennelly, R. A. (1980). A bilingual word‐length effect: Implications for intelligence testing and the relative ease of mental calculation in Welsh and English. British Journal of Psychology, 74(1), 43-51.
– Everett, D. (2012). Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language. Current Anthropology, 46(4), 621-646.
– Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Valentin Weber

Author Valentin Weber

Valentin Weber is a third year PPLE student, interested in the intersection of philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology. He also enjoys playing chess, solving riddles, and heated discussions.

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