Alan Watts the British philosopher, writer and speaker, said that ‘We seldom realise . . . that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.’
We do? Well yes, it seems so. Take gender: The results of a series of experiments by Professor Lera Boroditsky1 are intriguing. For example, the word ‘bridge’ is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe bridges, German speakers used adjectives such as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender. Spanish speakers said they were big, strong, sturdy, and towering. In French, ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ are female, and so the Statue of Liberty is a woman, as is the blindfolded Statue of Justice on the Old Bailey in London.
Boroditsky and fellow researchers at Stanford and MIT travelled the world collecting data, and comparing as divergent language systems as Greek, Russian, Chinese, Aboriginal Australian, and more. Boroditsky and her team found that those who are multilingual think differently from those who aren’t. The professor wrote that, ‘…when you’re learning a second language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.’
In another study, Japanese-Americans who spoke both Japanese and English were asked to complete the sentence ‘When my wishes conflict with my family …’ in each language. One participant, in Japanese, came up with ‘… it is a time of great unhappiness.’ In English, however, he or she finished it with ‘… I do what I want.’ Same participant, same sentence – but thinking in a different language led to very different results.
So – does learning second language shape our thoughts? There’s one way for you to find out – join us at la Academia to find out. French, German, Mandarin – whatever the language we can help you learn it.
1. Lera Boroditsky’s talk: How language shapes the way we think?