In my last post, “Are We Just a Product of the Languages We Speak?,” I wrote about how the linguistic structure of a language can impact the way we think and understand the world around us, based on how different languages express the same ideas in linguistically distinct ways.In this post I will highlight two more examples of how languages shape our vision of the world, specifically regarding the concepts of blame and the future.
As discussed in a previous post, “Can Language Affect the Way We Think?,” when we make a mistake or have an accident, we English speakers place all the linguistic blame on the agent through the use of the active voice: “I dropped the glass,”“I forgot his name.” On the other hand, Spanish expresses blame much more passively, as demonstrated in the respective translations of the previous phrases: “se me cayó el vaso” and “se me olvidó su nombre,” emphasizing the action over the agent and seemingly suggesting that the glass dropped itself or that somehow, the forces of nature conspired against you, causing you to drop the glass.
A study performed at Stanford University had speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese (blame is expressed similarly in both Japanese and Spanish) watch videos of people performing unintentional actions, like popping a balloon or breaking a glass. When asked to describe the actions, English speakers proved to be much less forgiving. They repeatedly pointed out the agent performing the action by saying things like, “He popped the balloon,” while the Spanish and Japanese speakers were much more likely to simply describe the action by saying “the balloon popped.” Interestingly, when asked about the videos later on, the Spanish and Japanese speakers were much less likely to remember the agents of the accidental actions than the English speakers.
A concept that might be somewhat difficult to grasp for speakers of the majority of the world’s languages is the idea that in some languages, the future tense does not exist. Imagine trying to make plans for the weekend or organizing your vacation next summer without using the future tense. However, in futureless languages, like Mandarin Chinese, this is completely normal. And surprisingly enough, speakers of futureless languages are actually proven to perform better in activities related to, well, the future (as odd as that may sound). This is because speakers of languages in which the future is explicitly expressed by a “future tense,” like English, tend to view the future as far-off and as something which doesn´t have much impact on our lives now. However, when the distinction between present and future is linguistically muddled, as is the case in futureless languages, speakers tend to feel much more impacted by and in touch with the future. Likewise, speakers of these languages have been proven to be better at saving money and to on average, make better decisions regarding their finances, health and lifestyle.
So next time you’re confronted by a difficult situation, try approaching the problem from the perspective of the speaker of another language. It might make all the difference!