How Does our Language Affect our Cultural Perceptions?

Published on March 20th, 2015

There has been much research into how language affects culture and how the way that a person speaks can structure and form cultural backgrounds.

Of course, languages are a human creation, tools to help people overcome communication barriers and help their survival. As Aristotle once said, “Humans are social animals”: humans are by nature designed to live together and therefore the creation of language is inevitable.

However, how much can people understand when speaking in different languages? Undoubtedly, language is a vital part of culture, shaping minds, creating impressions and structuring beliefs. Native language forms even the most fundamental dimensions of human experience: space, time, causality and relationships with others.

Take, for example, Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, where their language does not use the terms “left” and “right”. Instead, everything is comprehended in terms of cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) and so instead of saying “right leg”, they would tend to say, “There is an ant on your southwest leg”.

Another example is the way in which English speakers usually describe events in terms of a subject carrying out an action, i.e. “John broke the plate.” However, speakers of Spanish or Japanese will most likely describe the same incident without involving the subject: “The plate broke”. This is possibly because their mind set is structured to prioritise the act itself over the subject or cause.

It is only when a child is exposed to their surroundings that they become individuals within their cultural group. Languages help the creation of a uniquely complex way of thinking, which will stay with them forever. Thus, when people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world; Charlemagne proclaimed that “to have a second language is to have a second soul”. Learning a foreign language paves the way for a cultural and environmental intersession of unknown and unperceived characteristics.

Another interesting example is that the word “barbarian” comes from ancient Greek barbaroi. This was created to represent people who did not speak Greek; to the ears of the ancient Greeks, it sounded as though these people were saying nothing but “bar-bar-bar-bar”. The use of this word to describe all foreigners without ethnical or cultural differentiation reveals a human inability to form attachments with people who speak a different language.

Language represents the way in which each civilisation perceives reality, breaking it into categories and labelling them in terms of actions and beliefs; as a result, our language and thoughts are greatly influenced by our culture. Today, it is estimated that up to 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world, meaning that there are 7,000 different cultures for us to discover.

Posted on: March 20th, 2015