5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think

Most linguists agree that, to some extent, the languages you speak play a role in shaping how you see the world. If you speak German, you might be a little more pragmatic; if you speak French, you might be just a touch more emotional; if you speak Klingon, you might be a bit of a virgin -- you see where we're going with this. But you might be surprised about the extent that your brain is wired differently depending on whether you think thoughts in Japanese, English, or Swahili. For example ...

#5. "Gendered" Languages Encourage Discrimination

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Speakers of English are often confounded by gender markers in foreign languages. In German, for example, there are three different words for "the" depending on whether the object in question is masculine ("der"), feminine ("die"), or neutral ("das"). For instance, in Germany all dogs are masculine and all cats are feminine. Don't ask us how the hell they keep making more dogs and cats.

Martin Falbisoner
They're probably manufactured by Mercedes-Petz.

Now, you may not think that identifying all bridges as being female ("die brucke") would have any ramifications for ladies who speak German, but this is Cracked, and we pretty much only bring things up if you're wrong about them. It appears that bridges were designated female because they are things that people walk all over, and yes -- societies where gendered languages are spoken tend to be male-dominated. Not only that, the effect increases with the number of gender markers present in the language.

It's been posited that being forced to assign a gender to all objects gives more importance, in the mind of the speaker, to people's gender than if they were using neutral language. And the effect isn't negligible. In countries where the dominant language employs a sex-based system of gender identification, female participation in the work force drops by about 12 percent, whereas in countries where the language uses a non-sex-based gender system, female work force participation actually increases slightly, by about 3 percent.

Kamil Macniak/Photos.com
"Non-sex-based gender" instead discriminates against the poor, the elderly, the undead, etc.

So there you go: Want to boost the economy? Quit insisting that all bicycles are girls because you can ride them as much as you want and then leave them in the street.

#4. Thinking in a Foreign Language Forces You to Make Better Decisions

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Most of us don't think entirely in words. Thoughts tend to be a flurry of notions, images, and ideas that crackle their way across our synapses. For this reason, it's easy for our inner monologues to slip into irrational concepts, stereotypes, and MacGyver quotes (just us?). But University of Chicago researchers have found a simple antidote: If you're not sure if bias may be coloring an important decision you have to make -- say you can't decide between paying your rent this month or buying every single engine on Train Simulator -- making the most logical choice is easy. Just try thinking about it in a foreign language.

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It makes thinking so hard that you choose neither, saving maximum money.

In a series of studies, the researchers tested a bunch of English speakers who knew Japanese as a second language. They gave the participants an ethical puzzle: Say there was a disease that would kill 600,000 lives. Is it better to develop an antidote that would save a guaranteed 200,000 lives, or one that had a 1/3 chance of saving everybody but a 2/3 chance of doing nothing? Most people chose the first option -- there's less risk involved.

But then they were asked another question: Was it better to develop an antidote that would kill a guaranteed 400,000 people, or one that had a 2/3 chance of killing everyone but a 1/3 chance of killing nobody? In this case, most people chose the only logical option: Kill the Batman.

Wait, no -- they chose to save everybody.

Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"Wait, what? Which one was that? Math is confusing."

If you stop and really think about it, those were both the exact same question. The difference was in the way they were framed -- instinctively, we're less inclined to take risks when it comes to saving people than when it comes to killing people. Emotion and instinct get in the way of thinking about the question rationally.

But then the researchers gave the problem a second time -- in Japanese. The result? The number of people who went for the "safe option" dropped to around 40 percent. Just because this time they had to think about it in a foreign language.

"Japanese? Cool. Fuck safety."

What researchers think is happening here is that translating your thought process into a second language basically forces you to rely on cold, analytical cognition rather than whiny, emotional cogitation. Well, either that, or there's some kind of code hidden in the Japanese language that nixes all emotional response. Probably not, but hey -- it would explain the robots.

#3. You're Born With Vocal Cues, and They Can Screw You Over Later in Life

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Babies may not be able to speak until they've been crawling around for a couple of years, but they begin learning well before that -- and not just how to strategically pee in your mouth during diaper changes. A study has shown that babies actually pick up their mother's speech patterns while they're still in the womb. How can we possibly know that? Because after they pop out, they cry with an accent.

Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Baby on the left's all like "Waaah." Other two, they be all "Rwaaah!"

That sounds insane, but a 2009 study of 60 French and German infants revealed clearly different intonations in their cries -- the French babies, as you may expect, had a lilting, somewhat mincing cry, and the Germans had a harsh, barking cry (we are, of course, paraphrasing -- the actual study referred to French babies as "little weenies" and German babies as "tiny jerks.")

That's because every language has a unique set of intonations, called the prosody. The prosody of your language is so ingrained in you, even before birth, that it can actually make other languages more difficult to understand. Take sarcasm, for example. You probably know how to detect if a sentence is delivered in a sarcastic tone. In fact, you could hear a sentence composed of complete gibberish ("Erg, hooma doomada gurgen whacken berg spleez") delivered with a sarcastic intonation ("Yeah, the guy at the DMV was real considerate") and still easily spot the intent behind the statement: DMV clerks are dicks, even in Bizarro World.

And they don't even call it the "VMD." Real missed opportunity there, Bizarro World.

You'd think that you could listen to someone sarcastically ripping on your stupid ass in Cantonese, then, and still know you were being insulted, right? Well, as it turns out ... no, not at all. The results of a study of English and Cantonese speakers concluded that, while acoustic markers for sarcasm were remarkably consistent within each language, sarcasm sounds completely different in each one. See, the Chinese ladies at the nail salon aren't viciously mocking you at all. It just sounds like that.

Well, except for you, Sandra. They friggin' hate you.

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