Subtle Ways Your Language Shapes the Way You Think

You spend almost all of your waking hours—and even some of your non-waking hours—using language. Even when you’re not talking with other people, you’re still running a monologue in your head much of the time. And you also frequently use language when you dream. Given the degree to which you use language not only for communicating with others but also for thinking to yourself, it comes as no surprise that the language you speak shapes the kind of person you are.

In the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists tended to equate thought with speech turned inward. In other words, when you think, you’re just talking to yourself. As a result, they came to the conclusion that we can only think in terms that our language provides for us. This belief in linguistic determinism formed the premise for George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, in which the government controlled people’s thoughts by limiting the words in the language.

In the second half of the twentieth century, psychologists argued that thought precedes speech, both in development and in real time. Thus, they argued that the structure of language is constrained by the limits of cognition, a position we could call cognitive determinism. For instance, the fact that all languages have the same basic underlying structure can be explained in terms of innate limitations in our memory and attention.

In the twenty-first century, we understand that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Now we recognize that sometimes language influences thought, and other times thought influences language. The goal of psycholinguists then is to determine in direction causality runs under particular circumstances.

Read more: Psychology Today

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