The idea that different languages may bestow different cognitive abilities has existed for hundreds of years, but only recently have cognitive researchers gradually uncovered evidence that the language we speak may have an impact on the way we think and process events that take place in the world around us. According to scientists, our understanding of events, causality, spatial relationships and time are shaped by cultural constructs and language.
Linguists discovered some time ago that language conventions influence our spatial representations of time. For example, in languages that are written left to right, such as English, people tend to think of the passage of time as a phenomenon that flows from left to right. The converse is true for speakers of Arabic, for whom time moves from right to left, just like their written language.
Researchers have noted that Mandarin Chinese speakers construct vertical timelines as opposed to the horizontal timelines favored by English and Arabic speakers. Speakers of Mandarin occasionally use horizontal terms to discuss time, but they frequently make mention of earlier events as “up” and later events as “down”. May, for example is “above” July.
A 2010 study of the Pormpuraawan aboriginal people of Australia by researchers Alice Gaby and Lera Boroditsky found that speakers of the community’s indigenous languages oriented themselves in space and time in terms of cardinal directions (north, south, east and west). When they face north, they lay out the progression of time from right to left; however, when they face east, they perceive time as moving towards them. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Pormpuraawans normally think of time as moving from east to west, mimicking the sun’s journey in the sky.
Those who speak languages that depend on absolute directions also demonstrate a remarkable ability to orient themselves, even in unfamiliar surroundings. The demands of their languages oblige them to hone this particular cognitive skill.
Language also influences how people describe events and, consequently, how well they are able to recall who did what. English speakers have a tendency to frame events in terms of people doing things, showing a preference for transitive constructions like “Tom broke the glass,” even in the case of accidents. In contrast, there’s a lower probability that Japanese or Spanish speakers will mention the agent when talking about an accidental event. A Spanish speaker might say, “Se rompió el vaso,” which translates to “the glass broke” or “the glass broke itself,” a construction that removes blame from the agent. In a study performed at Stanford, after viewing clips of people spilling drinks or breaking items, the Japanese and Spanish speakers demonstrated a decreased ability to remember who caused accidental events, as compared to the English speakers. Thus, linguistic differences have an impact on how people interpret events, and they have important consequences for eyewitness memory.
This research highlights just how complex the interaction between culture, language and cognition truly is—yet one more reason why competent professional translators are indispensable when it comes to communicating across cultures and languages.