“Nim kle gadeetvoo tta corota-jra reyy... fuhoo kle. Dambadamba jivla baahaa-na...” roared the Kalakeya king when he challenged the Queen and her two sons for war against the Kingdom of Maheshmati. This scene of the blockbuster hit movie Baahubali, is noteworthy. Nobody, neither the Queen nor her sons could comprehend what the Kalakeya king said, but they still stood silently knowing that the words being uttered in their presence are not exactly welcoming. It was only when a prisoner of war standing in their midst translated the King’s threatening words that they reacted with bulging eyes and gasps of horror, ready to pounce at the ill-bred king.
Language creates our experiences. It is only when the Queen and her sons understood what the king said that they reacted furiously, thus giving birth to their unpleasant experience. Before that, the incomprehensible words of the King had no clear impact on them, thus creating no or an uncertain experience which was not of much importance. Imagine, what would have happened if the translator would have delivered an entirely different translation to the Queen, saying that the Kalakeya king had come to submit before the fight even started because he heard of the might of the Royal family. The same words of the king would have received a very different reaction from the Queen and her sons, thus creating a proud and pleasant experience for them. Language, then, holds the power to elicit different emotions from us humans, thus creating different experiences. A teacher’s sharp words of criticism can demotivate a student completely, a mother’s simple ‘Proud of you’ can grant immense level of confidence in a child, just listening to a standup comedian can make one’s miserable day turn into the best day ever, while a coach’s monologue can make a team, who has given up hope, win. Language has that impact, it elicits emotions, and creates different experiences.
There are a total of 7,000 languages spoken around the world, 7000 extremely different experiences. They have different sounds, different pronunciations, different vocabulary, different grammar and different structures. Therefore it is justified to ask whether people who speak different languages also differ in the ways they think? And the answer to this is yes. Language does shape the way we think. In fact, people can, more or less, only perceive aspects of the world for which their language has words. But this in no way suggests that languages limit our ability to perceive the world, rather, they focus our attention and thoughts on specific and different aspects of the world. Speakers of different languages develop different cognitive skills and predispositions as shaped and structured by the patterns of their languages. Human mind, then, has invented not one but 7,000 different cognitive universes- each, more diverse than the previous one.
While delivering a Ted Talk, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shares various examples supporting the above mentioned claim. She talks about her own study of an Australian primeval community whose members didn’t use the words ‘left’ or ‘right’ while referring to directions. Instead, they used cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. However, English speaking communities, or even Hindi speaking communities for that matter, don’t really know the compass directions, let alone use them properly. Cognitively speaking, this aboriginal community would be way better oriented than the English speaking folk simply because their language taught them their directions well. Similarly, there are languages which don’t have words for numbers, and therefore speakers of these languages have great difficulty keeping track of exact amounts.
Different languages also have their own ways to describe certain events, focusing on very different aspects of the same event. For example, an English speaking girl would probably say, “Hey mom, I broke my arm” and her mom would normally show some concern towards her daughter and take her to the hospital. If, on the other hand, a Hindi speaking girl would have said the same thing, just in her own language (“Mumma, maine apna haath todh diya”), her mother would give her a good scolding for acting like a lunatic, before taking her to the hospital. The latter would react that way because her interpretation would be completely different from the former’s. The Hindi speaking mom, in this case, assumed that her daughter deliberately broke her arm, which would not be the case with the English speaking mom, even though what both their daughters said were the exact same thing. This however isn’t what typically happens in Hindi speaking households. We (the Hindi speaking folk) focus on what happened, in other words: we focus on the event, unlike the English speaking folk who focus on who actually did it. The cognitive consequences of this are that the English speakers remember ‘who did it’, whereas the Hindi speakers remember ‘what actually happened’. So, two people watch the same event, witness the same crime, but end up remembering different things about that event.
Language also affects the way we perceive different colours. The first one was conducted on English speakers and Russian speakers, and found that the former couldn’t detect a gradual colour change from light to dark blue, while the latter could detect it readily. This was because the Russian language, being more in-depth and accurate in relation to colours, has different words to specifically categorize different shades of blue as opposed to the English language. So thanks to the language, the speakers are able-enough to detect subtle colour changes in their environments as compared to speakers of a different language.
It should not come as a surprise that those who speak more than one language also see the world differently. Numerous studies have shown that a new language can change how the human mind pulls information together, hence, enabling those who speak more than one language to have diverse perspectives on a particular issue. Such people can have a significant position in society because of their ability to be the negotiator between groups. Not just that, studies support multilinguals to have a better working memory than monolinguals (Białystok et al. 2008).
Another set of studies mentioned before, is a growing body of research, actually documenting how experience with language downright restructures the human brain. Individuals who were deprived of access to language as children show patterns of neural connectivity that are altogether different from those who had early exposure with language and are cognitively different from peers who had early language access. Studies suggest that multilinguals differ from monolinguals in their cognitive organization and that affects their recall of personal experience, perception, memory, and self-perception.
There is no doubt, then, that language does give birth to our cognitive universe, and that Charlemagne was right when he said, “To have a second language is to have a second soul”.
Language also has a very intriguing relationship with the senses. I remember the first time I heard this song when the Dairy Milk Silk advertisement came on,
“Kiss Me, Close Your Eyes
Miss Me, Close Your Eyes
I Can Read Your Lips
On Your Fingertips
I Can Feel Your Smile
Come On My Lips
And Happiness In Your Eyes”
Before I knew it, I was smiling. The more I listened to it, the quicker I could relate it to happiness and of course, chocolates! And now, the minute I listen to this song, I start craving the product that it is selling. It works exactly the same way when someone in front of me starts talking about my favourite cuisines, my mouth starts watering and my stomach starts craving. Mere words having the ability to physiologically affect me, scary isn’t it? Another example that highlights this relationship between language and the senses, is the act of sexting, in which two individuals willingly exchange sexually oriented messages online. Research has found that sexting is positively correlated with sexual satisfaction (Harris, Frisby, & Beck, in progress) and sexual pleasure (Klettke, Hallford, & Miller, 2014). This means that language is capable enough to satisfy people’s sexual needs!
The VAKOG model used in Neuro Linguistic Psychology is a model which talks about language and its association with the five senses. According to NLP, humans use the five sensory channels with different emphasis and input. These five senses are used in ‘sensory words’ which are verbs, nouns, adverbs that refer to a certain representational system. So basically a person's favorite expressions related to seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting indicate his representational system of preference. The five sensory channels are as follows:
1. Visual – This sense is related to the vision, eye. The visual expressions we generally use are: see, look, picture, imagine, focus, notice, watch, visible, appear to be, look ahead, look away, etc.
2. Auditory – This sense is related to listening, ear. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: quiet, calm, loud, discuss, rumour, speechless, silent, unheard of, shout, call out to, etc.
3. Kinesthetic – This sense is related to touch or feel, skin. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: feel uncomfortable, comfortable, heart skips a beat, hold on, be on cloud nine, pull some strings, slip my mind, cold feet, soft, rough, cold, etc.
4. Olfactory – This sense is related to smell, nose. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: scent of chase, running nose, smell, scent, burned, rosy, smoky, mossy, earthy, woody, odourless, look beyond one’s own nose, etc.
5. Gustatory – This sense is related to taste, tongue. The sensory words which we use in relation to this channel are as follows: juicy, suck, sip, slobber, lick, taste, burnt, nutty, delicious, sour, crispy, savoury, etc.
So, according to this model, an individual with a visual representation system would generally say things like, “Keep your eyes on the prize”, while another individual with an auditory representation system would say, “Doesn’t the prize money sound great?!”. Similarly a person with a kinesthetic representation system would say things like, “I have a great feeling about the prize”, whereas the one with a gustatory representation system would say, “It’s indeed a mouth-watering deal!”
Language is obviously extremely influential. That is why we’re taught from a very small age to talk ‘properly’, not let emotions get the best of you, to use the ‘appropriate’ words according to every context, to be subtle and not direct, to be neutral while talking. But what is neutral? Is there such a thing called ‘neutral language'? Every language carries with it a host of assumptions about the world, about others, and ourselves. Even a simple ‘I’m fine thank you’ to someone who just asked you how’re you doing, suggests that you don’t consider that person important enough to tell them how you’re really doing, in other words: you guys are not close. People who do use what they perceive to be ‘neutral language’ are in some ways similar to those who call themselves ‘apolitical’. Apolitical, may seem to be a neutral term on the surface, but in reality it’s a stand of its own. Similarly, trying to talk carefully without taking a stand, is a stand of its own, not neutral.
Imagine you are in Delhi, standing in front of a street vendor, waiting for your favourite street food called ‘golgappa’, and suddenly you are joined by another customer asking the same vendor for a plate of ‘panipuri’. What comes to your mind? If you are familiar with the age-old debate between Delhiites and Mumbaikars on whether it’s called a ‘golgappa’ or a ‘panipuri’, you will automatically assume that the second customer is from Mumbai. Mere words were enough to make that assumption, weren’t they?
Take another example, gender in language. Different languages have different ways of assigning genders to nouns. The word "bridge" happens to be grammatically feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. So German speakers are more likely to describe bridges as "beautiful," "elegant", which are stereotypically feminine words, whereas Spanish speakers will be more likely to describe it as "strong" or "long", which are stereotypically masculine words. This may not look like much, but actually highlights the limiting beliefs of the speakers in relation to the gender stereotypes they hold. In other words, the kind of language one speaks, brings out the filters, limits and possibilities of the speaker. There’s an extremely popular reel trending on Instagram these days, ‘Can you pay my bills?’ Though it may sound like a fun and harmless reel, a line in that song goes like: “A baller, when times get hard, I need someone to help me out. Instead of a scrub like you, who doesn't know what a man's about” The song lyrics really bring into focus the song writer’s views on what manhood is all about, therefore highlighting their limiting beliefs on masculinity.
Of course language influences, and humans have drawn out several different styles in order to create a particular kind of influence. And quality of success in any field is directly proportional to the quality of our communication and language style that is used within it. For instance, poetic language, which is a more artistic form of ordinary language, is used with the intent of creating an impact on the reader, to make the masses relate to what is being written. Be it shayaris, sonnets or ballads- all have different structures but the same intent- engaging the audience and making them feel what is being said or written. In such cases, using language which is vague in nature really helps. An instagram influencer who I used to follow, once wrote about her road trip to Goa: ‘Sitting in the moving car, having the fresh air hit my face, leaving behind the small houses and the other vehicles as they disappear...’ She was talking about her trip, but funnily enough I could relate to it at an altogether different tangent. I was going through some difficulties in a friendship back then, and somehow these words resonated with me in that context. Funny thing about language is that sometimes they tell us things without actually saying it directly. You take it the way you want it to take it in.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
These lines are taken from the popular poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost. In this poem, the poet talks about his experience of taking the path, not usually taken by others, and how it has made all the difference. However, the poem also talks about the inevitable regret because of the choices one takes as opposed to what they could have. That’s the beauty of poetry, you see, because Frost refuses to allow the title to have a single meaning, his poem automatically becomes relatable to all kinds of readers- those who are seeking courage to make unconventional choices, as well as those who have regrets, thinking about how they made a wrong choice. Being vague attracts relatability and empathy, especially when there are huge numbers to target.
At the same time, being specific and precise helps in formal settings, academic writing, giving instructions in organizations, etc. A science practical class cannot afford a teacher being vague about how much quantity of sodium bicarbonate needs to be added in the beaker. If that influencer had to explain that same car experience from her trip to Goa to a bunch of school students, she would not talk about a fresh start and leaving behind the small buildings, instead she would strictly talk in lines of motion and distance, being as specific as possible. In short, it is important to know exactly how to use language according to the circumstance one is in, or else things don’t go down well. As a student who likes to read, I have personally come across novels in which the author becomes too philosophical at times, and textbooks where the author is too conversational, and this really doesn’t sit well with me. Selecting a particular style of language is therefore an important task.
The kind of language that the therapist uses in therapy also makes a difference. Therapy’s success is dependent on the therapeutic relationship- the relationship and rapport between the therapist and the client, which in turn depends on the quality of their interaction, which again depends on the language that they use. The therapist, through language, has to earn the trust of the client, creating a safe space where the latter can open up, then decipher the distorted narrative that is playing inside the mind of the client, and then again, using language, try to question it in a non-threatening manner, and attempt to replace that narrative with a healthier one. Because therapy is all about reaching the client’s heart, many therapists also consider switching over to another language in which the client is more comfortable in, to be a good idea. After all, Nelson Mandela did say, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” The use of a client’s native language in the therapy session makes the client feel more comfortable to perceive the therapeutic context as more meaningful. Language concordant therapists can understand the cultural variations that might not catch the eye of a therapist who doesn’t know how to speak the patient’s language.
At the moment, more than half of the population in the world speaks more than one language. And that being the situation psychologists are more likely to encounter patients whose first language is neither their own nor the first language of the community they live in. This diversity in language, which is situated at the intersection of linguistics, cognitive, social, cultural psychology and also second language acquisition has a lot of potential to primarily impact the practice and success of psychological interventions in therapy practice.
But also thanks to multilingualism, therapists and clients who speak the same multiple languages can also switch among them according to the therapy’s progress. Language switching in the course of a therapy session has revealed that emotional distancing linked to the use of a second language might facilitate the verbalization of highly changed material. Even if the dominant language has richer emotional construction, the emotional potency of the native language may impede cognitive processes and access to intellectual and deep resources for making sense of the experiences of the client. Hence, the use of different languages might reveal more information. A therapist writes, “... generally what I did with her was I’d stay in English so as not to threaten her, unless she was on a roll, if she was on a roll in Spanish then I could kind of with short phrases kind of keep it rolling by not making myself too much of a presence in Spanish because I thought that may make it too overwhelming” (Rosenblum, Sofia Maia, 2011).
By now it is crystal clear that language is an inseparable part of us and our reality. It is not just a tool with which we communicate, it gives form to our reality. As mentioned before, language shapes us cognitively, thus having an impact on how we perceive things around us. This helps us formulate our reality. Then, it also helps us communicate that reality further through human interaction. Through that interaction, our reality gets strengthened and reinforced. For instance, a considerable number of people who I knew, both personally as well as celebrities and leaders who I admired, were quite outspoken in their expressing their disapproval against the previous Mr President of the United States of America, Donald Trump. Amongst these were majorly those who often talked about women’s rights, equality, against racism and islamophobia. However, there was also a group which supported Trump blindly believing him to be working for the betterment of their country. What I mean to say is, those who felt passionately about terms such as ‘sexism’, ‘racism’ and ‘islamophobia’ believed Trump to be the bad guy. However, the same person was the hero of many, who may not have those terms so readily available in their vocabulary because of never really talking about it before with as much passion as the first group. And when these individuals get together and talk about their views (which thanks to confirmation bias always favours the views which we hold), our opinions get strengthened.
One person, but two realities, two truths- whom to believe? Who is right? The question here, however, is not who is right, but why we think the way we think, and to understand that the opinions of the other party, might be as justified as yours.
This brings us to another realization: there is no absolute truth. Even though it may look like the way we describe things, to others as well as ourselves, is the absolute truth, it is important to note that language is not equal to our experience. Abhijit Naskar said, “Perception is like painting a scenery - no matter how beautifully you paint, it will still be a painting of the scenery, not the scenery itself.” In other words, the way we describe our reality is subjective. Our ‘truth’ depends on a number of factors like our culture, social status, financial status, gender, etc. Truth is simply a matter of different perspectives and changing narratives. Oliver Gaspirtz said, “A cow's heaven is a flower's idea of hell.” The exact same thing might have happened to two different people, but they might interpret it in completely different ways, formulating divergent narratives in their mind, and that becomes their reality. In fact the truth is, the second we decide to put into words what happened to us, the experience changes.
Consider what happens in therapy. The role of a therapist is to make the client understand that the narrative they hold of their reality is not actually their reality, and thus they can change it. Changing the language, can change one’s perspectives in life. Albert Ellis, the founder of REBT, said, “People are not disturbed by things but rather by their view of things.” And therefore the goal of REBT is also to identify and reshape the core beliefs that we develop due to certain traumatic incidents in the past. Language, thus, can transform what has already happened. And that is what we realize in therapy!
How Languages Shape The Way We Think - Language Advantage. (2019). LANGUAGE. https://languageadvantage.ca/how-languages-shape-the-way-we-think/
How language shapes the way we think | Lera Boroditsky. (2018, May 2). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKK7wGAYP6k
Karp, M. (2016). Does Anyone Still Understand Me? Psychotherapy and Multilingualism. FullText - Verhaltenstherapie 2016, Vol. 26, No. 3 - Karger Publishers. https://www.karger.com/Article/Fulltext/448818
NLP Model: VAKOG. (n.d.). Landsiedel. Retrieved August 30, 2021, from https://www.landsiedel.com/en/nlp-library/representational-systems-vakog.html
Rosenblum, Sofia Maia, "The role of language in therapy : how bilingual/multilingual therapists experience their work with bilingual/multilingual clients" (2011). Masters Thesis, Smith College, Northampton, MA. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/1013
This article on 'Language: Our Truth, Our Experience' has been contributed by Parinitha Kodali who is a student of Clinical Psychology, from Amity University, Mumbai. and peer reviewed by Saumya Joshi who is a psychology enthusiast, currently in third year of undergraduation from Vivekananda College, Delhi University.
Parinitha and saumya are both part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.
Parinitha's future plan is in gaining knowledge from various fields including research. Fascinated with human behaviours and space and ancient mythologies.
GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.