Language and Thinking

I want to discuss here about a question I asked myself today while thinking about languages and their properties. The question is:

What is the link between the language and the way of thinking of its native speakers?

As an Italian native speaker, I was always used to “reason in Italian”. What I mean with this is that my flow of thinking is somehow shaped as if I was talking to myself in Italian (am I really doing it?). This was always a problem when it comes to describe my own ideas and, as a researcher, this is becoming one of the most important activities. The problem is even more evident now that I moved to Belgium and brainstorms are more and more frequent. In these occasions, it is really hard to shape the message in a clear way at the first trial.

Going back to the initial question, it seems to me that different languages have different standard levels of complexity. For example, in my opinion the base complexity of Italian is higher than the base complexity of English. A native-italian speaker is than required to reduce the complexity on an italian sentence in order to produce a discourse in English with the same content. Here, with complexity, I mean different things, but I refer mostly to the length of the sentence and to the number of subordinate clauses. In other words, one can refer to the complexity of a sentence as the amount of working memory you need to store the concepts contained in the sentence. When speaking in English, it seems to me that you can say less things with a single sentence, or with a single thought.

When I started to study English at school, the teacher told us students to make an effort in avoiding to produce a sentence in Italian and then to translate it into English. The suggested correct behaviour was to construct the sentence directly in English, which is indeed very useful if you want to increase your fluency. However, after many years studying English (with a very questionable success :)), I still believe that my thoughts still keep the flow which is usual in Italian. The flow, which I’m referring to, is the sequence of clauses in a long sentence. Even when speaking English, the order of the clauses is very Italian-like. In most of the cases, the English sentence is still grammatically correct and it is likely to convey the same meaning, but the impact and the immediacy with respect to the Italian one are completely changed. When writing, you realise that, in most of the cases, there is another more English-like way of constructing the same sentence.

This long digression is useful to support the claim that a language carries with itself something of the way of thinking of its (native) speakers. There was a philosopher that used to say that “if you want to know the culture of a population, you first have to speak its language”. This is so true.

Enlarging the scope of this claim, there are many other characteristics of a language that reflect the characteristics of the minds of its speakers. Syntax, semantics, vocabulary: all of them carry properties of the people speaking a particular language. At the end of the day, language is one of the most beautiful human intelligent behaviour, where its intrinsic complexity is the outcome of the need to express, remember and crystallize complex concepts and ideas.

From an artificial intelligence viewpoint, it would be extremely interesting to investigate which are the mechanisms underlying the creation of these linguistic properties. For example, what is the social phenomenon that establish that, at a certain moment, a particular concept deserves a specific word for it? This is so interestingly linked to the phenomenon of emergence of symbols or atomic entities in the human intelligence.

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