5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think

#2. Your Views Change With the Language You Use to Voice Them


Most of us took a second language in high school, then promptly forgot everything we learned in favor of bong-making methodology and Led Zeppelin lyrics. But for those who stick with it and wind up fluent in another language, the language you happen to be using at the time may directly affect the outcome of the conversation.

Certain foreign prisons go extra hard on you if you know only English.

Recent studies have suggested that language may act as a cue to which cultural frame of reference a given interaction belongs in. Wait, don't go off Googling apple bongs yet! We'll explain: Psychologists call this phenomenon frame-shifting, and it's basically the ability to put yourself in someone else's cultural shoes just by speaking in their language.

For example: A test was applied to bilingual Arab Israelis who spoke both Arabic and Hebrew (two cultures that have famously held a little animosity toward each other over the years) that asked participants to record whether words had negative or positive connotations. When the test was given in Arabic, the participants picked Jewish names as being intrinsically negative, but this effect disappeared when the test was given in Hebrew. In short, their bias against Jewish names arose from the fact that they were thinking in Arabic at the time, and not because they necessarily had any deep-seated bias against Jews. Don't go thinking that the Arabic language is somehow inherently racist -- it has plenty of Jewish friends. They just go to another school; you wouldn't know them.

University of Minnesota
But fail the test in multiple languages? Sorry, you're racist after all.

The effect can be seen virtually any time you deal with culturally sensitive concepts in two different languages: 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."

We can only assume about the finger snaps and sassy head wobble that accompanied the latter statement. But assume we shall.

#1. "Futureless" Language Speakers Are Better at Friggin' Everything


Consider the tenses past, present, and future. The difference between the sentences "Bob is at the store buying nachos" and "Bob will go to the store to buy nachos" has explicit implications about how far we are from eating nachos. That is need-to-know information. But it may be surprising that some languages don't have a future tense, or it's not obligatory. In Mandarin, for example, it's fine to say something like "Bob store buy nachos," and nobody will make fun of your caveman speech or slap you in the mouth because you didn't immediately specify the time frame of nacho delivery.

Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images
In Mandarin, they always keep spare nachos.

One might think that speakers of such languages would just be wandering around confused, utterly unmoored from time as we know it, hurtling obliviously through chronology with no anchors to tether them, screaming into the void as history whips pas-

No? They're totally fine?

Huh. It turns out that speakers of these tenseless languages actually make far better decisions than tense-language speakers, about virtually everything.

Dynamic Graphics/Creatas/Getty 
Because they're less tense.

For example, a study by Keith Chen of Yale Business School analyzed data from 76 countries, focusing on things like saving money, smoking and exercise habits, and general health. The surprising result was that cultures in which most people speak languages without a future tense make better health and financial decisions overall. In fact, it found that speaking a tensed language, like English, made people 30 percent less likely to save money. It is thought that speakers of such languages, whom we shall call Untensers, see their lives as less of a timeline and more of a whole. Therefore they are automatically more mindful of how their decisions will affect their futures than we savage, primitive Tensers. Strangely, it seems that thinking of "the future" as being some far-off place, removed from the realities of our daily lives, makes us more likely to buy that second Xbox just because the first looked lonely.

Untensers consistently accumulate more wealth, hold onto it for longer periods of time, are healthier, and live longer than Tensers, for whom the past is something we've left behind, and the future is like a distant planet where consequences live that we don't fully intend to visit.

Mike Floorwalker can be found on the Twitters and the Facebooks.

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Related Reading: We have some bad news, the English language makes no freaking sense. And dickwad academics who thought Latin was awesome are partly to blame. It's a shame our language couldn't have stolen something cool, like this Japanese word that refers to people who spend their whole lives on the Internet. If we need to make extra room, we could always talk about banning these words. Just a thought!

Pop culture is a baffling animal. Some media or individuals become revered staples, while others become embarrassing or forgotten. In our latest podcast, Michael Swaim and Adam Ganser join Jack O'Brien figure out why this happens. Be sure to download it here and subscribe to it here.

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