The weird way language affects our sense of time and space

The weird way language affects our sense of time and space

Miriam Frankel and Matt Warren write:

If you were asked to walk diagonally across a field, would you know what to do? Or what if you were offered £20 ($23) today or double that amount in a month, would you be willing to wait? And how would you line up 10 photos of your parents if you were instructed to sort them in chronological order? Would you place them horizontally or vertically? In which direction would the timeline move?

These might seem like simple questions, but remarkably, your answers to these questions are likely to be influenced by the language, or languages, you speak.

In our new book, we explore the many internal and external factors that influence and manipulate the way we think – from genetics to digital technology and advertising. And it appears that language can have a fascinating effect on the way we think about time and space.

The relationship between language and our perception of these two important dimensions is at the heart of a long-debated question: is thinking something universal and independent of language, or are our thoughts instead determined by it? Few researchers today believe that our thoughts are entirely shaped by language – we know, after all, that babies and toddlers think before they speak. But a growing number of experts believe language can influence how we think just as our thoughts and culture can shape how language develops. “It actually goes both ways,” argues Thora Tenbrink, a linguist at Bangor University, in the UK.

It is hard to ignore the evidence that language influences thinking, argues Daniel Casasanto, a cognitive psychologist at Cornell University in the US. For example, we know that people remember things they pay more attention to. And different languages force us to pay attention to an array of different things, be it gender, movement or colour. “This is a principle of cognition that I don’t think anyone would dispute,” says Casasanto. [Continue reading…]

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