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Does Language Define Thinking?

May 28, 2018 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Does our language define our thinking?

Or rather, to put it another way, is our thinking limited by our language?

Probably the best film I watched last year:


If you haven’t seen Arrival, and don’t want me to ruin it for you…

DON’T watch this video:

The film arrival is based on an idea in Psycholinguistics called “linguistic determinism”.

In the 1940s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf suggested that language controls what we can think about. The idea is that if we can’t say it, we can’t think it.

This was called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”.

There is some evidence for this.

Different languages have different words for different colours. Some languages have only two colours: “hot” and “cold”. Russian, apparently, has two words for different shades of blue (though I don’t know from personal experience). Research with the Amazonian “Piraha” found they couldn’t learn count or do sums — their language only has two numbers: “one” and “many” (though there is counter-evidence to this too – the Australian Warlpiri tribe also only have, “one”, “two” and “many”… and they did sums just fine).


I find an extreme version of the idea difficult to accept.

It doesn’t make sense to me that we CAN’T think things we can’t say. But it also doesn’t make sense to me that language and thought are completely separate.

Anyone who has learned a second language knows it changes your thinking.

Broaden’s the horizons.

And indeed…

If you ask me this is one of the best reasons to learn a second language.


P.S. On a side note, there’s a chapter in my book about how culture affects your English — read it here.


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