Perception Born of Language: How our mother tongue shapes our world view
by Maximilian Eyle
Why do you see the world as you do? Our age, gender, financial status, education level, nationality, and many other factors shape how we view society and our place within it. Some of these factors we have control over, others we do not. But there is part of our identity that shapes everything else. Without it, we would not truly be human. I am speaking about language – the framework through which we understand the world and ourselves. Much like our nationality or gender, we do not get to choose which language we learn first. The consequences of this are powerful, because every language describes the world differently – forcing you to see the world differently.
Let me give you an example that contrasts the perception of English and Spanish speakers. In Spanish, the sentence structure is more likely to use the passive voice when describing an accident. In English, the “actor” is usually included in the description. When shown a video of a man accidentally breaking a vase, the Spanish speaker will likely organize the sentence to say, “the vase broke,” while the English speaker will say, “the man broke the vase.” This simple difference is a result of the syntax of each language, but can have major repercussions on how we perceive events. A study from Stanford University showed that when the active voice was used in court cases, the defendant was more likely to be found guilty than if the passive voice was used. In this context, English speakers are more likely to assign blame than Spanish speakers – even when describing the same event.
The term for how language changes perception is linguistic relativism. One famous example is that of some indigenous tribes in Australia that do not have a word for “right” or “left”. Instead, they use directions like “north” and “south” to describe the positions of things. As a result, they are constantly aware of their orientation – even when inside a building. An article in Slate magazine describes the following experiment:
When asked to lay out a series of cards that included earlier and later events, members of the [indigenous Australian tribe] will arrange the cards from east to west (the direction of the sun) no matter which direction they are facing. English speakers, meanwhile, will lay them out left to right (the way English is written), while Hebrew speakers will lay the cards out right to left (the direction of Hebrew script).
It is difficult if not impossible to say whether these differences are good or bad. However, they establish that our language abilities both expand our understanding of the world as well as limit it to the structure of that language. For me, this awareness underscores the importance of learning a second language so that we might also gain a second perspective.
Maximilian Eyle is a native of Syracuse, NY and a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He works as a media consultant and writes each month about a variety of issues for Spanish-language papers across New York State. Maximilian has a love of Hispanic culture and learned Spanish while living in Spain where he studied and worked as an English teacher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.