Does Language Define Thinking?

Does our language define our thinking?

Or rather, to put it another way, is our thinking limited by our language?

Probably the best film I watched last year:


If you haven’t seen Arrival, and don’t want me to ruin it for you…

DON’T watch this video:

The film arrival is based on an idea in Psycholinguistics called “linguistic determinism”.

In the 1940s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf suggested that language controls what we can think about. The idea is that if we can’t say it, we can’t think it.

This was called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”.

There is some evidence for this.

Different languages have different words for different colours. Some languages have only two colours: “hot” and “cold”. Russian, apparently, has two words for different shades of blue (though I don’t know from personal experience). Research with the Amazonian “Piraha” found they couldn’t learn count or do sums — their language only has two numbers: “one” and “many” (though there is counter-evidence to this too – the Australian Warlpiri tribe also only have, “one”, “two” and “many”… and they did sums just fine).


I find an extreme version of the idea difficult to accept.

It doesn’t make sense to me that we CAN’T think things we can’t say. But it also doesn’t make sense to me that language and thought are completely separate.

Anyone who has learned a second language knows it changes your thinking.

Broaden’s the horizons.

And indeed…

If you ask me this is one of the best reasons to learn a second language.


P.S. On a side note, there’s a chapter in my book about how culture affects your English — read it here.


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Julian Northbrook

Julian Northbrook is an unconventional punk of the business English learning world. A leading expert in English education and direct response marketing, he’s fully equipped to drag you kicking and screaming from English-mediocracy to speaking at an outstanding level. After being turned down for his dream job in the art industry, Julian suffered three long years as a crap Japanese speaker. He understands exactly what it’s like to feel like a total idiot every time you speak. But Julian overcame his language problems, mastered the language, and went on to work first as a freelance translator, then as an executive member of a Japanese company. But he soon grew sick of the corporate world and left it to pursue something infinitely more satisfying — running his own business helping small business owners and entrepreneurs get so good at English that they forget that it’s not their first language. He writes the infamous Doing English Daily Newsletter which you can (and should) subscribe to.