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Language Does Shape the Way People Think


In human perception and reflection of reality, there is an issue which has been the focal point of research for psychologists and linguists: whether it is the language or the thought that develops first, which of them determines the course of the other, and what exactly is the nature of interrelation between these two phenomena. Opinions have divided; on the one hand, followers of Jean Piaget’s line of thought believe that language is dependent on thought; on the other hand, proponents of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis support the theory of linguistic determinism and claim that determines the nature of thought. The present paper focuses on the latter position and purposes the objective of corroborating the aforementioned theory by evidence obtained during recent research in the field of cognitive psychology.

The connection between language and thought

The starting point in the investigation of the connection between language and thought is the diversity of languages present in the world. Encoding information in various ways and rendering a different kind and amount of information using different languages triggers the interest of researchers since such distinction requires paying attention to different aspects of the world and perceiving one or another bearing of it with more or less significance attributed to it. Therefrom stem the difficulties traditionally faced by learners of a new language: they have to refocus their attention on realia of a different kind to render the information which is correct and relevant to the language they are speaking (Boroditsky, 2009). Researches have explored some of the key language notions and terrains widely used in the daily life of various peoples and discovered that those notions are characterized by crucial differences in perception and therefore can be used as a basis for grounding the idea of language prevalence over thought.

Language defines the way of thinking

The core ideas on time and space appear to be significant for demonstrating the perception of those notions in different cultures. Particularly, studies of English and Mandarin vision of time discovered firstly, that the English perceive time horizontally, while the Mandarin spatial perceptions of the time are characterized by both horizontal and vertical orientation. Secondly, based on these observations a series of tests were designed and conducted which allowed for defining whether language differences are also reflected in the way of thinking; the test results have shown that while demonstrating equal speed in answering questions based on horizontal time primes, Mandarin speakers forestall the English when coping with the questions framed within vertical primes. Even though the test was conducted in English, the peculiarities of the Mandarin native language allow them to operate efficiently thus clearly showing the prevalence of the “language-encouraged habits in thought” over the language one deals with. Moreover, the later in their life the Mandarin start acquiring English, the less impact it has on their way of thinking; on the other hand, the English demonstrate the ability to cope with the vertical-based tasks much more efficiently after a short course introducing the vertical perception of the time, thus evidencing for the language, and not any other cultural difference, as a primary domain of shaping one’s thought. (Boroditsky 2001)

Another practical issue showing the difference between ways of thinking possessed by bearers of different languages is the ability for arithmetic. Studies conducted among the Amazon tribes of Pirahã and Mundurukú have yielded results that witness the ability for counting present even without an exact language system for calculations. While the Pirahã people possess no means of linguistic expression for exact numbers, not even for singularity or plurality, they are nevertheless capable of efficiently performing large quantity matches at the same time failing during the tasks where memory is involved (Pica, Lemer, Izard, & Dehaene, 2004). The Mundurukú speakers can boast a more developed system of counting that comprises words for exact numbers up to five but does not include any exact definitions for quantities beyond that range. However, despite the scantiness of the Mundurukú counting system, they demonstrate a similar Pirahã ability to operate with large numbers without naming them (Frank, Everett, Fedorenko, & Gibson, 2008). Therefrom a conclusion is drawn that language can be referred to as a cultural phenomenon that does not facilitate counting as such but rather constitutes an encoding and processing technology the human brain employs with the view of structuring the arithmetic procedures.

Strong evidence for the idea of language defining the way of thinking is found in the studies dedicated to the perception of color in different languages. For one thing, having tested the Russian and the English speakers’ reaction to a situation involving the distinction between the light-blue and the dark-blue shades, researchers have discovered a strong interdependence between the habitual way of thinking and perception of colors in those two nations: the Russian speakers, traditionally distinguishing the light and the dark blue by linguistic means, employ this distinction even when performing tasks that never required the use of language; therefore, language automatically customarily directs their thoughts according to the language-specific categories (Winawer, Witthoft, Frank, Wu, Wade, & Boroditsky, 2007). For another thing, the research conducted among the Greek and the English speakers employing the vMMN method (electrophysiological index of perceptual deviancy detection), confirmed the idea of language influence on one’s thinking subconsciously, since the differences in color perception become obvious already at the early stages of exposure to the visual stimulus, even without involving language as such (Thierrya, Athanasopoulosd, Wiggetta, Deringa, & Kuipersb, 2009).


Further research is conducted focusing on other aspects of perception and reflection of the world in language, but the available results already allow claiming in favor of Whorfian theory of linguistic determinism, as language influence on the way people think has been observed on levels far from conscious use of language.


Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43 (1), 1–22.

Boroditsky, L. (2009). How does our language shape the way we think? In M. Brockman (Ed.), What’s next: Dispatches on the future of science (pp. 116–129). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Frank, M. C., Everett, D. L., Fedorenko, E., & Gibson, E. (2008). Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition, 108, 819–824.

Pica, P., Lemer, C., Izard, V., & Dehaene, S. (2004). Exact and approximate arithmetic in an Amazonian indigene group. Science, 306 (5695), 499-503.

Thierrya, G., Athanasopoulosd, P., Wiggetta, A., Deringa, B., & Kuipersb, J.-R. (2009). Unconscious effects of language-specific terminology on preattentive color perception. PNAS, 106 (11), 4567–4570.

Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. PNAS, 104 (19), 7780–7785.


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