In his work “The Perception of Reality,” philosopher William James posed a question not of reality itself, but under what circumstances people think things are real. This was a question later taken up by sociologist Erving Goffman in his seminal work “Frame Analysis.” Recently, I found myself fascinated with an article in The New Yorker about the development of a hypothetical language which takes up the issue from a linguistic angle. Does the language we speak actually influence the way we perceive the world?
Talking about the messy, irregular world of human language, the article’s author Jonathan Foer wrote: “No one who set out to design a form of communication would ever end up with anything like English, Mandarin, or any of the more than six thousand languages spoken today.” However, an amateur linguist from California named John Quijada tried to combat some of those quirks when he designed a hypothetical language he named Ithkuil. His ambitious goal was to develop a language that was extremely precise but also very concise and logically consistent. It was inspired by the notion of developing “one single language that combined the coolest features from all the world’s languages.” It’s a fascinating article that touches on human inventiveness and the ways language helps us constitute our world.
Earlier this month, behavioral economist Keith Chen gave a TED talk on the idea that the language we speak affects not just how we think about the world, but our behavior as well. Chen examined differences in savings behaviors among people whose languages distinguish between past, present, and future (such as English and French) and people whose languages don’t (such as Mandarin). He found strong evidence to support a connection between how we think about the future and how we save for our future. Economic behavior isn’t the only thing that has been studied in this manner: linguistic differences in the concepts of navigation, color, gender attitudes, and blame have all been considered by other scholars.
These are issues everybody learning a new language eventually confronts — the realization that it’s not enough to memorize grammar and conjugation rules. At a certain point, to learn a language, you need to develop the ability to think in that language. And that realization brings another — that some thoughts are more thinkable in certain languages. So in some ways, learning a language may be about transforming the mind itself.