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 ...

"Gendered" Languages Encourage Discrimination

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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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.

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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.

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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"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.

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.

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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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.

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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"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.

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

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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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.

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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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.

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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.

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think

Your Views Change With the Language You Use to Voice Them

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think

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.

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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.

"Futureless" Language Speakers Are Better at Friggin' Everything

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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.

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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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.

5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think
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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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