How Language Affects How We Think

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal gave a fascinating insight into new research that shows the language we speak has profound impacts on how we conceptualize and interact with the world and other people. While scientists have long speculated this premise, there has been little research on the topic since Noam Chomsky’s work in the 1970s. Chomsky firmly believed that all languages share a common, basic grammar and therefore have no real differences. That view is changing due to new work in the field.

For example, some aboriginal Australians don’t use left and right to determine direction—they use north, south, east and west. As a result, they possess an amazing ability to perform complex navigational tasks. Their spatial conceptualization of the world also affects how they perceive and construct other things like morals, values, family relations and time.

Other examples include differences in the way Japanese and Spanish assign agents to actions; speakers are more likely to say “the vase was broken” instead of “John broke the vase.” This affects how speakers of these languages assign blame and feel about guilt. A certain Amazonian tribe refers to quantities in terms of “a few” or “many,” and was found to have trouble determining exact numbers of items. Russian speakers, who have an unusual number of words for variations in shades of blue, were found to have a greater ability to see and differentiate shades of blue than non-speakers.

What does this all mean for business writing? It means that in the Internet age, when communications make their away around the world in multiple languages for an international audience, writers will have an even more difficult time ensuring that their messages and meanings are correctly conveyed. What makes for a wonderfully coherent argument in French may break down entirely when read by a native speaker of Portuguese for whom French is a second language, or when translated into Mandarin.

There’s no doubt that writers, especially those engaged in international business or global communications, will have to take the old mantra “know your audience” to an even deeper level. They’ll have to understand how their audience’s language affects its perception of the written word, and adapt their writing accordingly.

This sounds like a big task, and it is. After all, an American company doing business in the EU can expect to tangle with French, German, Spanish, Italian and dozens of other languages in the course of a day, and the cacophony of foreign tongues grows even louder in Africa and Asia. But it can be done—after all, this is a country that has learned to distinguish varying degrees of quality in take-out sushi, and which restaurants in the area offer the most authentic Pad Thai. Surely, we can learn to be just as subtle with our writing as we are our food.

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