Language and How We Think

In an essay found in ‘What’s Next?; Dispatches on the Future of Science‘, Lera Boroditsky discusses the evidence that how we speak influences how we think.  Being a virtual uni-lingual anglophone (who at bests butchers rather than speaks french), this has always being an area of interest to me.

Some of the research mentioned in the essay is familiar.  For example those whose mother tongue involves a gender (German, romance languages) tend to describe a noun differently depending upon their gender disposition.  For example Germans describe a key (masculine in German) in male terms where as Spaniards describe the same object in feminine terms – although in both cases they were using English to make the descriptions.

Further to this essay, Mandarin speakers think of time in an up-down spatial orientation whereas English speakers think of it in a horizontal orientation.  Boroditsky notes that  “English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors … where as Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time.”  She uses a simple experiment in which you stand next to an English and then Mandarin speaker.  In both cases you point to a spot in front of you and say ‘this is now’.  Then you ask each speaker in turn to describe, relative to that spot in space, to point to the future and past.  ” … English speakers nearly always point horizontally.  But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or times more often than do English speakers.” (p. 123, ibid).

An interesting party trick, but So What? one might ask.  There are a couple of considerations.  Firstly, this different perception in how we think is a good reason to learn a second language.  Doing so creates a different linguistic-mental-model that actually changes how you think about the world around you.  Beyond being good insurance against dementia, it is also a good way to expand one’s perception of the world around us.

The next reason is to expand one’s understanding of language as a driver of culture.  Being aware of the influence of language on perceptions may help organizations (and those who run them) reduce conflict and cross-cultural mis-understanding.

I do have a more subtle question though beyond the relatively macro-scopic linguistic level.  Do organizations also have a difference in perception because of their different use of technical-language?  For example, I have noticed cultural differences coming from a numbers and empirical world of the Ministry of Finance to a more humanistic politically orientated world of the Ministry of Health.  What is driving what?  Does the use of a local Ministry specific lingo drive the Ministry’s culture or does the culture drive the lingo?  My guess is a bit of both but what degree affects the other is the interesting question.

Alas, this last point is probably impossible to test empirically – but is nevertheless an interesting consideration as one studies organizations.