Scott H Young

Does Speaking Another Language Change How You Think?


A number of readers have asked me, now that I’m learning language number six, whether learning new languages changes how you think. Do you become more passionate while thinking in Spanish? More respectful thinking in Korean? More open to enjoying experiences thinking in French?

The answer is both yes and no.

Does Language Fundamentally Alter Thought?

One extreme view is that language forms the fundamental basis of our thinking and, therefore, certain linguistic systems make particular thoughts unthinkable or completely different. Known popularly as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this idea is also probably false.

Language is a tool that fills the needs of its speakers. When an easy word or expression is lacking, one is invented or imported from other languages. Modern, major world languages which have millions of speakers must cope with the full diversity of human experience and activity. Assuming I was equally fluent, discussing chemistry, philosophy or sitcom television in Mandarin shouldn’t have any real difference from discussing it in Spanish.

This all means that the strong version that people suggest—that learning a new language fundamentally structures different kinds of thoughts one can have, is mostly false. When it is true, it’s usually in fairly uninteresting ways.

Asian languages, for example, have more precise words for relatives than English, so your mother’s older sister’s children have a more precise name than “cousin” in English. But that’s just convenience. The same idea could equally be expressed in English, perhaps just a little more verbose.

Languages also have expressions and words for concepts that don’t match one-to-one. In poetic terms that can be useful, allowing you to carefully select one word that embraces slightly different overlaps of meaning than one which can exist in English. But, again, it’s a nuance in expression, the same fundamental thoughts can be conveyed fairly equally in most languages, plus or minus a bit of brevity.

Culture Does Matter

The big way that learning a new language changes your thinking is that language is a gateway to culture. Cultures do differ dramatically, even if people are fairly similar on a fundamental level, psychologically speaking. Culture offers a different identity and perspective that tends to be more homogenous within a group of people who all speak the same language.

I found that living in France and learning French made me appreciate experiences more, as North America tends to be more ambition-oriented than southern France. But this was almost certainly a cultural trait I absorbed, rather than a linguistic one. Studying French at home in my basement probably wouldn’t have changed my outlook just because of the phonemes and grammar patterns.

Therefore if you learn Spanish and find it makes your thinking somewhat more passionate, then perhaps it’s because passion is a more important cultural value than in English-speaking countries, and the language is giving you an access point to that culture.

But if it’s culture, and not the language itself, which is giving you this new perspective, then if you really want the new perspective, why learn the language?

Here I think is the real thought-changing value of language learning: because without learning the language the culture is always viewed at arms length.

Language is a Gateway to Culture

There are many access points to understanding a culture: cuisine, history, movies, music and friendships. I don’t want to demean any of these other avenues, because I’m sure their advocates would argue equally that you can’t appreciate a country without eating their food or knowing their history.

However I do think language is a preferential route for cultural understanding (albeit a difficult one) for two reasons:

First, most of the world doesn’t speak English, or they don’t speak it well. There are some countries which are exceptions, such as Sweden or Singapore, but not many. While it’s certainly possible to travel to places and only interact with the English-speaking minority, you end up leaving out most other people.

The people who speak English well in most countries also tend to be the better educated, cosmopolitan elite. They’re not a representative sampling from the underlying population, so you often completely miss aspects of the cultural perspective you wanted to gain.

Second, understanding via a translation is the difference between seeing a postcard and being there in person. Most translations are shabby, and even the high quality ones you get for movies and books are, by definition, a paraphrase of what was actually said.

The person who says that there is zero merit in learning a foreign language because they can just get things translated, is a bit like a person who says there’s no reason to visit a place because the pictures are detailed enough. From an information perspective, it’s not entirely wrong, but it does somewhat miss the point.

The Language Learning Experience Changes How You Think

Finally beyond the changes in thinking that come from new linguistic categories or exposure to new cultures, the process of learning the language itself changes how you think.

The process of going from bewilderment, to struggled communication, to communication that flows but with a particular stiltedness that natives speakers lack (and potentially to complete indistinguishable fluency) changes how you view communication, how you view other people learning English and yourself.

I think this is the most valuable part of language learning as a way of changing perspective. Not because a new language will allow you to think different thoughts, nor even because it will give you access to people whose thoughts differ from your own, but because it will help you understand yourself in a way that wasn’t possible before.


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21 Responses to “Does Speaking Another Language Change How You Think?”

  1. Mu says:

    Language is a gateway to culture, absolutely.
    And I think it is precisely so because of the subtleties between languages.

    For example in French, enjoying eating nice food is translated with “gourmandise”. “La gourmandise” is perceived as positive, because food is there to be appreciated.
    French people have a very special relationship with food indeed.

    In English, the exact translation to this is ‘gluttony’
    However the word has got a negative connotation. It means eating a lot, without necessarily appreciating the food.
    And that again says a lot about the English society. Where food is not central. And having too much of it is shameful.

    Another example.
    The term ‘bullying’ is used a lot in Brtish English.
    Bullying at school, at work. It looks like the British society feels strongly about protecting the victim of bullying.
    However the French equivelent does not exist at all. Does it mean that there are no bullies at work? Certainly not. But it does mean that there is less structures in place to help people that are victims of bullying.
    Something that has been verified not that long long ago with the France Telecom scandal.

    So I think that languages do affect thoughts, tremendously. They are at the root of how our society function.
    But it does take a while to understand subtleties of language.
    It’s not only about whether some words exist in a languate and not another. It’s also about the frequency of use of certain words.

    A very interesting subject indeed!

  2. David says:

    Eloquently put. This article sums up what I have always believed on the topic. Learning new languages has changed the way I think at times, because of the massive amount of exposure and input from a different culture/perspective, which can change the way I see things. When I speak another language, I attempt to imitate not only the accent, but also the gestures and local customs. I also read more about whatever issues their culture finds important, and discusses a lot for social reasons/interesting discussion.

    This can affect the way I think, but my mind is not a zombie swinging from culture to culture, I have hard fixed beliefs, ways of thinking, and a strong underlying personality that remains essentially me through all of it. It can be colored and expressed differently when one culture affects me strongly and really resonates within me. I’ve felt this most with French and Russian, but less so with Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Other people may feel the opposite, if they were to learn the same languages, it depends on our personalities, and how we resonate with the culture, not the language!

  3. Dawn says:

    “…without learning the language, the culture is always viewed at arms length.” This is so true! I recently returned from my third trip to a country where I am fluent in the language. I traveled with people who had been there multiple times, but do not speak the language. I was made very aware of your point as they repeatedly questioned my insights, experiences, and opinions as we lived and worked among the people. Those (almost subconscious) lessons about daily life and culture that I take for granted were of great interest to fellow travelers! Their questions about my “experience” gave me a new awareness of the depth of “advantage” that I enjoyed that goes far beyond functional communication.

  4. Rhoda says:

    The best reason I’ve heard for learning another language is that one’s mind is expanded. This reason was given to me by my first ESOL tutee,
    a Romanian veterinarian who knew Italian and Spanish, and was in the process of shifting from a Southern European perspective to a Northern European one. This was about fifteen years ago. I’m certain that that man’s mind continues to expand.

  5. Alma says:

    I agree very heartily with Mu, who posted this morning, and I love this post overall.

    In my pursuit of individual languages, the “gateway to culture” outlook is overwhelmingly true. I love that outlook; it has a huge bearing on the scope of Linguistic Relativity (which is what Sapir-Whorf has evolved to).

    Yet, as I pursued Linguistics as its own topic (eventually earning a degree in it) I learned about language features so different from our own that I have started to look more at the effect that language has to have on culture (and by what power other than the human mind). The rare feature of Evidentiality is one that truly opened my eyes. Much like our verbs contain a tense marker, some languages require a “how did I come to know this knowledge” marker. To the native speakers “I heard…” or “I saw…” or “I was told by someone who saw…” is as crucial as past, present, future, and the rest is to English speakers. The cultural impact of this was clear to researchers who didn’t know to include these markers and found themselves as untrusted. This lack of trust, based on language misuse, is an innate and purely mental reaction-one that unites the entire culture.

    Learning a language turns a magnifying glass on to your own native tongue, in addition to challenging you to proceed through confusion. I was happy to hear just last week that there is a curricula called “Prima Lingua” starting to enter schools. It’s focused on learning about language before learning a language.

    Thanks again, Scott, wonderful read!

  6. Evelyn says:

    As someone who has lived in several countries and learned 4 languages, I would say that the big change in my thinking as a exult has been my approach to the different cultures. It is much harder to have an us and them mentality about a different culture when yu

  7. Evelyn says:

    Sorry typing on my iPad!! …when you start to learn the language as so much of culture in implicit in a language. Other way in which it has changed me is that I’ve become much less concerned about failure. When you speak another language you have to be prepared to make stupid mistakes otherwise you don’t speak and you don’t learn. It can have a knock on effect in overall willingness to try. Am going to share your article on our business page and on a group I help to run for expats.

  8. […] Does Speaking Another Language Change How You Think? « Scott H Young. […]

  9. Doris says:

    Hi,Scott.
    Now,I’m learning French by myself.And it’s very difficult for me to learn it well because I’m Chinese.You know,French is quite different from Chinese.Can you give me some suggestions?
    Thanks.

  10. […] of perspective in mind, we start this week’s speedlink with Scott Young who discusses the effect of language on thought. Is it true that you become more respectful when thinking in Korean or more passionate when […]

  11. Peter says:

    I’d say a case could be made that a relatively weak but not negligible form of linguistic relativity aka the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does hold ground.

    For instance, experiments show that linguistic categories affect a person’s spatial perception. An example that I guess should be familiar to you is how one expresses the thought “next/last month/week” in Mandarin Chinese. “上/下个月/星期”, which literally translates to “upper/lower month/week”. This correlates with how a considerable number of Chinese speakers perceive time as moving on a vertical scale from up to down, whereas most English speakers think of time as moving on a horizontal scale from left to right.

    There’s a quite a few experiments that suggest such differences based on difference in spoken language. While many of the findings aren’t signficant in and of themselves, they do have exciting implications about how language can cause speakers of different languages to perceive events from different vantage points.

  12. Kent Roper says:

    Great article, Scott. I think learning a new language changes the way you think about other people, especially people who are different than you.

    I decided to challenge myself this summer learning an Asian language, and chose Lao because I have some Lao friends. Studying the language has made me more interested in their culture, their native country, their food, etc.

    I think if more people learned more languages, we’d all be a little more tolerant of cultural differences.

  13. Aimache says:

    Hello Mu,

    what you say about the translations of gourmandise/gluttony/bullying is not really true.

    There is no exact translation of “gourmandise” in English, but there is a translation of “gluttony” in French: “gloutonnerie”, which really means eating a lot, without considering the quality of the food. But the deadly sin in the Bible is “gourmandise” and not “gloutonnerie”… Quite strange indeed…

    There is a translation of bullying in French: harcèlement.

  14. Jennie says:

    I have heard that English is the only language that has the word “afford”, which changes the way we handle money. “I can’t afford it” is a standard excuse used when we want something but can’t quite justify buying it. The French, for example, don’t understand this. If you want something, you have the cash, you buy it. No internal debate.

    Does anyone know if this is true?

  15. Bob Tobin says:

    completely agree.
    learning a new language expands your mind and your world.

  16. Rob says:

    Nice post. I especially agree with language changing our way of thinking. Keep it up ;)

  17. Scott Young says:

    Peter,

    I think you’re probably right. The stroop effect from psychology is probably relevant here, with conceptual categories being influenced by how a person relates those categories to themselves in their head.

    However, my disagreement comes from the stronger version that most people intuitively believe–that there are whole categories of thought which are alien or missing in other cultures. You see this all the time with popular articles about certain cultures lacking words for X (and, despite trying to debunk it in my post, you see it popping up here in the comments). Unfortunately, “lacking a word for X” is usually false (even if a single word doesn’t exist, the idea can be readily explained in a couple words or a short sentence.

    The comments above from Mu is a perfect example. French people certainly know what it means to eat too much, even if their culture values eating and experience somewhat differently than in North America.

    -Scott

  18. I am new to your blog. I have to say that six languages is very impressive. You are absolutely that learning a new language doesn’t change the way you really think about things, but involving culture with that can drastically alter your world view. This reminds me that I need to start focusing on learning French again. Thanks for the inspiration.

  19. Rosie says:

    I am inspired to learn Italian (again) after reading about your “Year Without English” adventures. I’ve pulled out my old cd’s and such. But a curious thing happened. I started chatting to strangers more in general… even my own neighbors. Asking people where they’re from and just asking about their day and really listening to what they say. Just having the awareness of learning a new language has changed how I think about my world. Grazie mille Scott!

  20. nicole says:

    Does speaking another language change how you think ? I think yes. I was amazed to learn once that the Chinese for computer was an electric brain ! I had really found it awesome ! I had really liked it. So rather than completely changing how we think, it enlarges our set of images and open our imagination !

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