Our Language and How We Experience the World

This article is in partnership with Day Translations and DayVIP.

In an interview for ABC Australia, Caleb Everett, linguistics professor specialising in Anthropology and Psychology, and a native from Amazonia, shared about his experience growing up, his background and his move to the United States at about 11 years of age. He is the author of the book “A Myriad of Tongues – How Languages Reveal Differences in How We Think” and his main interest is exploring the intersection of language, culture and thought. He set off to investigate linguistic diversity and diversity of thought in Amazonia, still very much underestimated and under-researched topics. He worked with the Piranhâ people in the Amazon and discovered that the tribe did not use numerical concepts, for example.

Growing up speaking Portuguese and his native local language, he was aware of diversity, the richness of language, how people think in different languages. Portuguese in that area has become the lingua franca that enables locals to apply for jobs and generally interact with institutions.

​Can Learning a New Language Change the Way We Think?

The teaching of languages often encourage students to read books, which can be a great way to open minds to new ideas, but not all languages are primarily written. This opens up a whole new world of opportunities, as we could challenge ourselves to learn those languages that are most at risk of extinction and that are often based on oral traditions narrating experiences and context, rather than written norms.

Languages can offer us alternative ways to understand the world, so they could bring us to be more flexible in our thinking, seeing thing from different points of view.

​How Does Language Shape How We Understand Space and Time?

English is a language that relies on a linear view of time, where the past is behind us and the future is ahead of us. Some languages don’t demarcate the passing of time because they don’t have a specific tense for past, future or present. Maybe if we learned a language with completely different concepts of time and space we could experience our own life differently.

For example, Professor Everett said that some languages use figures of speech, using mental images to explain experiences. We need to consider that there are over 7,000 languages in the world and they have their unique characteristic, therefore nothing is truly universal that is common to all languages.

The “first nations language” in Australia, for instance, cannot be categorised according to strict grammatical theories. There is an assumed homogeneity of speech that is typical of European languages and industrialised societies.

​How Languages Shape Our Understanding

IQ tests can be difficult to translate into different cultures because some symbols can be different or not existent in other cultures so they don’t represent their reality. For example, geometry is not universal and not applicable to cultures such as the ones found in a few African tribes.

Professor Everett explained that we have transposed the learnings from Mesopotamia such as measuring time in minutes into modern life. However, numbers are not universal to all languages: a few languages, in fact, such as tribal idioms in the Amazon, may not use numbers at all and have no terminology for quantities.

Some languages don’t use gender, pronouns are gender-neutral or irrelevant or unknown.

The Djirubal aboriginal language in North East Queensland has four genders, with high levels of complexity of categories. Some other languages have in excess of five genders, not just based on biological factors.

Then there are pictograms, graphic representations, which in our modern society we can see as emojis. There are some advantages for communication using images alongside the alphabet.

So, here we are now, we have gone full circle starting from drawing pictures to communicate through developing written forms of language in many corners of the world, and we are using words and emojis in messages to convey emotions and give more context to what we are saying.