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Can language rewire the way we think?

Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction movie, Arrival, explores the possibilities of the long-standing and controversial theory that language shapes the way you think.

When an alien spaceship lands on Earth, a top linguist is sent in to ask what the aliens want. The aliens use a non-linear language structure and perceive time differently to humans. As the linguist learns the alien language, it begins to rewire her brain, running the risk of losing her humanity.

In the 1940s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf first proposed that language determines how we experience the world. This became known as ‘linguistic relativity’. There is some evidence to support the theory but it is not as spectacular as the film would have you believe.

For example, a study in Massachusetts found that Russians, who have two names for different shades of blue, were quicker to distinguish between these two shades of blue than English speakers, who only have one name for blue.

It is also known that some cultures perceive time differently. One Australian aboriginal tribe sees time as flowing from east to west with the future to the west. Whereas, a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea will always gesture downhill when referring to the past and uphill when speaking of the future.

It is easy to think that language has a top-down effect on the way we think: “On average, 70 per cent of our total verbal experience is in our head”, estimates Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University in California.

So what else could language be for apart from communication? Could it serve as a mechanism of communication within our own mind? When comparing thinking between different groups of people, it is very hard to separate the effects of language from the effects of culture.

Currently the consensus is that we are all programmed roughly the same when it comes to perceptual categories like seeing colours. However, there may be a top-down influence on things we use language to conceptualise, such as time, space, number and gender.

It is amazing to see something as subtle yet powerful as language feature centrally in a film. As one of the characters in the film says: “Language, is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

Image: Allan Ajifo

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