Does Language Influence Culture?

September 12, 2010

We all use language to express our thoughts.  But new research suggests that inherent structures in languages shape our thoughts without us realizing it.  In fact, differences in languages seem to impact how people act and interpret their surroundings.

Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, provides some fascinating examples in a recent Wall Street Journal article. The Russian language contains an extra distinction between light and dark blues; in tests, Russians are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue than those who speak other languages.  The language of the Piraha tribe in Brazil doesn’t have words for numbers (like 10 or 100) but instead have terms like few and many; they are unable to keep track of exact quantities.

Caitlin Fausey at Stanford has shown that language can shape how we understand cause and effect, and thus dramatically impact eyewitness memory.  For example, English speakers don’t use the passive voice as often as other speakers in other languages.  If I knock over a water glass and accidentally break it, an English observer is likely to describe this event as “Jonathan broke a glass.”  A Spanish speaker, however, is more likely to say that “the glass broke” or “the glass was broken” when talking about an accident.  Because my name is not encoded in the phrase, Spanish speakers are less likely to remember who broke this glass; only that it was broken.  This difference only seems to apply in the case of an accident; for intentional events, Spanish language speakers encode the agent and are equally likely to remember who did it.

It’s intriguing to speculate whether these language differences might be responsible for culture and society differences.  The American criminal justice system emphasizes the search for the transgressor and the subsequent personal punishment.  This emphasis might not work as well with a language that didn’t encode agents.  If English was structured more like Spanish, perhaps our criminal justice system would instead focus on finding the victims and providing them appropriate restitution.  After all, we would be less likely to remember ‘who done it’.

Fausey tested this theory by asking English language speakers to watch a video of the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl.  Immediately afterwards, they read one of two reports which only differed in the last sentence; one used the agentive phrase “ripped the costume” while the other included the passive phrase “the costume ripped.” Even though every person witnessed the same event, the people who read “ripped the costume” blamed Justin Timberlake (the agent) more often than those who read the passive wording.   When asked about appropriate punishment, they also recommended fines that were 53% higher.   Language influenced actions.

For those of us who have to market in multiple languages, these differences have profound impact on how we approach our jobs.  We know that language and culture matter but they probably matter more than we realize. It’s likely that native language speakers are critical for true market success.

And one more thing: if I’m ever in an accident, I hope it’s in a non-agency language like Spanish.  They’ll never remember if I caused it.