Have you ever heard that the Germans’ high organizational skills are reflecting in their complex, yet rule-complying grammar? Or that people who speak a language with no future tense are happier? What about languages that do not have numbers?
These are stories we hear about the differences between speakers of different languages. But the extensive research that has been conducted on the link between language and behavior or psychology tends to prove that indeed, speakers of different languages are cognitively different.
Let’s have a look at some concrete examples from TED talks and other articles.
Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky (an expert in linguistic-cultural connections) noted something interesting about the differences between English speakers and Spanish, French or Japanese Native speakers regarding blame. In English, one will often say that someone broke the vase, even if was an accident, but others languages (like French or Japanese) tend to put the vase as a subject with a reflexive verb (literally “the vase broke itself”). This shows a different focus and as a result, English speakers tend to remember the person responsible for the breakage more than French or Japanese speakers, who tend to focus more on the result: the vase is broken. For more information, see this article in the WSJ.
An article in the Scientific American describes a study done with the Piraha tribe in the Amazon who has no number words at all! According to the study, they have only three words for numbers: “around 1″, “some,” and “many.” It turns out that not having words for numbers doesn’t affect their ability to conceive of different amounts of things, but only their ability to remember specific amounts.
Comparatively, a study at Yale University described in the Atlantic showed that those who speak languages without a future tense, like Mandarin Chinese for example, tend to see their lives as a whole, as opposed to seeing it as a timeline. In this way, they tend to take better care of themselves. Languages with weak or no future tenses tend to be more thoughtful about the future because they consider it, grammatically, equivalent to the present.
Another example is the differences regarding gender. In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish does not mark gender at all. A study related in Edge showed that as a consequence, kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)
Many studies have then proved that indeed speakers of different languages tend to think and behave differently, not only due to their history and culture, but also due to the terminology or the language structure they use.
Language learning is therefore not only a great way of communicating with others from all other the world, but also a way of adopting a new perspectives and a different focus on the surrounding environment.