Actually, even if you do not have a very smart book on linguistics beside you at the moment, I am sure you can say a lot about the role of your mother tongue in your life. So, I would not like to theorize much here. Let’s move to more pragmatic aspects of this issue right now.
We are going to start with the article “How Does Our Language Influence the Way We Think” by Lera Boroditsky, a current associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. Although it was published online by The Edge back in 2009, when she was an assistant professor at Stanford University, it was a good basis for her further successful research work, providing a high-quality review of her own studies and those of other scientists.
In this article she also writes about her lecturing experience and makes an interesting note. When she asked her students which cognitive faculty they would be most afraid to lose, the majority mentioned sight, some students mentioned hearing as well, but no one remembered about language.
On the one hand, it proves that the ability to speak and understand our mother tongue is so natural for us that we hardly ever think of it as of a very complex cognitive algorithm. On the other hand, we are likely to underestimate its importance for and influence on our life. To be precise, on the way we see this life and think about it.
I would use this idea as a basis to write my essay on such topic. And now I offer you to follow the professor’s train of thought and dig deeper into the issue. Let’s go!
The Theory of Benjamin Lee Whorf or Where the Whole Thing Started
Many scientists before him claimed that language always had a significant impact on human perception and cognition. However, the fire engineer and linguistic enthusiast, Benjamin Whorf, was the first to provide clear examples and thus support that claim. Together with Edward Sapir, his mentor in linguistics at Yale university, he came up with the principle of linguistic relativity, also known as Whorfianism.
In 1940, one year before his death, he dared publish an article with a very unobtrusive name “Science and Linguistics” in MIT Technology Review. He wrote that the way Native Americans saw and understood the reality was different from, well, English speaking Americans because of the obvious dissimilarities between Native American and English languages.
Although we now know that Whorf was mistaken when he claimed that our mother tongue did not let us think the thoughts for which it did not have words or grammatical constructions, despite all criticism, the very idea of linguistic relativity has been eventually proved to deserve the right to exist. What is more, it inspired many psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists, and other researchers to find out how it works in the real world.
So, in your essay you could cite a few compelling examples. Check them out below!
The Most Popular and Convincing Examples to Set in Your Essay
The reasons why people speak different languages as well as why for most of us learning a foreign one is quite a difficult task will be probably discussed forever. Yet, such diversity has a lot to offer today scientists and the next generations. Let’s see what we can know at the moment.
Grammatical Gender Issue
Back in 1990s scientists carried out a very remarkable psychological case study to learn whether the genders of nouns in different languages influence the way native speakers perceive the objects these nouns denote.
So, Spanish and German speakers were given the lists of objects in English and asked to write three English adjectives for each of them. It turned out that the selected adjectives denoted either masculine or feminine qualities, depending on the gender of the given object in the two languages. Spanish clocks and bridges were strong, heavy, big, or sturdy because these nouns are masculine in this language. On the contrary, German clocks and bridges were beautiful or elegant, as they are feminine nouns.
Verb Tenses and the Concept of Time
English is very well known for its variety of grammatical tenses. I bet that at least once your professor corrected them in your essay. However, the tense implies much more than the information on when you do or do not something. M. Keith Chen, an associate professor of Economics at the University of California, can shed light on this issue.
A few years ago he collected and analyzed the economic data from 76 countries to find out how speakers of languages that feature and do not feature the future tense make decisions and treat money. The results showed that the speakers of “futureless languages’ tended to be more mindful when it came to making financial decisions. The Chinese, who linguistically do not distinct the future from the present and past, appeared among the brightest examples of what we globally consider the wise attitude to money.
Space and Directions
Personally I still have some problems with distinguishing right and left directions. But I hardly imagine how people can go without these words at all. Nevertheless, John Haviland and Stephen Levinson proved that one Australian Aboriginal community can!
They found out that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr would use cardinal directions instead of such egocentric English concepts as “right” and “left” or “in front of” and “behind”. So, your right hand can be both north and southeast, depending on quite a lot of different factors. However funny such combinations may sound, but the people of this community have rather enviable spatial orientation skills.
In Scientific American, The New Your Times, and the online publications of Linguistic Society of America you can find many other ideas and examples for your college paper. Do not forget to cite the sources properly and to proofread your essay.
So, it looks like it is the right time to start writing!