How our language affects the way we think (Part 2).
After yesterday’s post, you’re probably not surprised to hear that the way we think about time and directions depends upon our language. I’ll start by talking about directions. Almost every language in the world uses primarily relative co-ordinates to describe location and direction. Things are “forward” or “backward”, “left” or “right”. Very rarely do we describe directions in terms of North East South or West, and in fact English uses absolute directions more than most. However, there are a few languages that are different. For example, there is an aboriginal tribe that uses absolute directions (like North, etc.) for everything, and doesn’t have words for relative directions like left or right.
As a result of this, members of this tribe have an astonishing sense of direction. They know exactly which way North is at all times, with accuracy better than 1 degree. Because they need to know exactly which way they are facing to be able to communicate, they have developed the ability to know which way they are facing.
Another language that has been studied regarding its use of directions is Nicaraguan sign language. Created in the 1970’s by a group of deaf schoolchildren, for the first decade or so it didn’t have any words to indicate position or direction. Studies have been done with adults who grew up with the original sign language in the 1970s and adults who grew up with words for directions, ten years later.
The two groups were shown an object being hidden in the corner of a room, where one wall was painted a different colour to the others. They were then blindfolded and spun around until they were disoriented, and asked to find the hidden object. It was found that even though both groups now had words for concepts like “left” and “right”, the group that did not grow up with those words found the task much harder. It seems that they simply didn’t store the location information of “left of the red wall”, because the language for that wasn’t instinctual.
These studies show that the way we think about position and direction is dictated by the words we use to think about them. A similar effect can be seen with our perception of time.
Most languages talk about time as going from “behind” us to “in front of” us, but even among these languages there is variation. If you were to draw a timeline for something, you wouldn’t be able to draw it from back to front – paper only has two dimensions. So, you’d draw it from left to right, in the same way as you write from the left to the right of the page. Chinese speakers would draw a timeline from top to bottom, because that is the way their language is traditionally written. In fact, even when speaking about time they sometimes use vertical words like “above” for “last” and “below” for “next”.
Where this gets interesting is in how this perception of time affects our cognitive abilities. If you ask an English speaker a time-based question, like “does March come before April?” after showing them a horizontal line of dots, they’ll answer faster than if they’ve been shown a vertical line of dots. The opposite happens with Chinese speakers; they answer faster after seeing a vertical line. It seems that our brain associates time with a particular spatial axis, and thinking about that axis primes us to think about time.
A similar experiment has been done where subjects were asked to lay out a series of pictures in time order. English speakers laid them out from left to right, Chinese speakers laid them out from top to bottom, and members of the Aboriginal tribe I mentioned earlier invariably laid the pictures out from East to West, regardless of the direction they were facing.
In the final part of this extended post, I’ll talk about the Orwellian implications of the importance of language to one’s thinking.
P.S. You may have noticed that some of the bloggers here are closing up shop. This is because the university semester is now over, and the blog is no longer a part of any assessment as of this evening. However, many of us intend to continue posting here for the foreseeable future, and the next wave of students will join us early next year on the blog, so please keep reading. Communication requires an audience just as much as it requires a communicator, so thank you for reading, whomsoever you are.