As a bilingual, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered this barrier to conversation: “God, why isn’t there a word about it in English?” Although I can use other words to explain my chosen term. in a roundabout way, this is never felt quite a lot it is as if I have understood the meaning – as only those who know the word itself will understand its exact context.
This little linguistic expression is not unique to me. Philosophers, psychologists, and linguists have been debating the hurdle for years, wondering if language somehow influences or even limits our thoughts. How firmly are our minds stuck in our vocabulary boxes?
Maybe my knowledge of a non-English word means that I have a thought that is not English – one that I cannot fully convey in English-only. Or maybe this thought is ubiquitous among all people and can be expressed as long as you point out the right words.
In an article published Tuesday in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley may have made some progress. They found “the clearest evidence so far” that our concept of numerical quantities – greater than four – relies on our knowledge of numerical words such as “six”.
Ultimately, the finding “supports the broader claim that language can enable new conceptual abilities,” said study author Edward Gibson, a professor of brain and cognitive science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Maybe learning new words really means thinking new thoughts.
Gibson and his team were able to reach their conclusion thanks to a special group of subjects: the people of Zimane. This remote civilization of about 13,000 people lives in the Bolivian periphery of the Amazon rainforest, isolated enough to fully respect the distinctive linguistic customs.
In 2014, a separate study, also conducted by Gibson, found that Tsimane’s children learn about numbers a little differently than children in industrialized countries such as the United States. This is because numbers are not an integral part of Tsimane’s lifestyle. They learn numerical words and quantities from one to four just like children in the states, but continue from five onwards at different speeds.
Therefore, the adults of Tsimane have selected repertoires of numerical words.
Focusing on this unique feature, the new study recruits 15 people from Cimane, who can verbally count between 6 and 20. The team asked subjects to perform a task called “orthogonal matching” by arranging objects such as batteries in a model.
They presented a number of objects to the participants horizontally, then asked them to arrange the number vertically.
The team found that Tsimane’s men had managed to complete the task only slightly below the number they could count. For example, someone who knows numeric words up to 15 starts making mistakes around 13 or 14.
“Beyond this range,” the researchers write in their paper, “they resort to numerical approximation. These results allow competing accounts of previous discoveries and provide unequivocal evidence that the concepts of large exact numbers are resolved by language.”
However, Gibson notes that “language” can be thought of quite freely in the case of numbers. “When we get to bigger numbers, even five and six, we need some way to present that if you want to present it accurately,” Gibson said. “They don’t have to be words – you can use your fingers or something – but you need some independent representation of the numbers.”
Although focused on the numerical sphere of language, the team’s discovery seems to tilt the scales slightly in the direction: Language directly dictates the content of our thoughts.