The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis defends that the mother tongue shapes the way in which we perceive and think about many aspects of the world, including questions like colour, time, space and relations with others. Sapir and Whorf considered that the structure of a language is integral both to thought and to cultural evolution.
But… This ,which proposes that speakers of different languages could think in different ways, lacked of evidence. Empirical evidences which could validate this idea in a rigourous way did not existed, so afterwards, in the 1970s, this vision was abandoned in favour of the idea that language and thought are universal.
The most important error that Whorf had made was to assume that our mother tongue restricts our minds and does not allow us to be able to think certain thoughts. Then, if that was the case, how could we understand new concepts or learn new things?
Who had already hit upon the solution was the anthropology professor Franz Boas when he had affirmed that grammar, apart from other functions, has the important mission of determining the aspects of each experience that must be expressed, adding that this aspects vary enormously among languages.
This key led the linguist Roman Jakobson to conclude that “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey, not in what they may convey.”
That is to say, the fact that language shapes our reality, is not due to what it allow us to express, but rather to the types of information that it obliges us to have into account in a habitual way.
The Romance languages like Spanish, usually oblige us to express the gender of the person or thing about which we are talking, or the time when an action occurs. In Chinese, for example, it is not important to express the time of the verb, which has the same form in the past, present or future, while in other languages like English or Spanish this information is important.
Therefore, depending on the language we are using, we must pay attention to certain details or aspects of our experience or the world that possibly in other languages could be overlooked. These are habits created at a very young age, and little by little they become mental habits that go beyond language, so they affect our experiences, sensations, perceptions, feelings, memories or even our more practical skills like the orientation in the world.
As Gary Lupyan would say: “Language is greasing the wheels of perception.”.
We all know that when learning a new language we have to pay attention to certain aspects of the world, that perhaps we had never considered before, to be able to include this information correctly in what we want to say and in order to achieve success in communication.
The patterns of a language play an important role when constructing the way we think. Hence, learning a new language means learning a new way of thinking.
On this new basis, and thanks to new technology tools available to specialists of language, a new generation of linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists are investigating and trying to demonstrate through empirical procedures the capacity of language to shape the world.
In this new group of researches stand out Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems and the linguist Guy Deutscher. New figures that study this fantastic theme from different fields.
Okay, fine, but … An example of how this phenomenon occurs?