If language changes the way we think are you making the most of them?


We’re told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but most of us probably don’t appreciate just how mighty the words we say, write and learn actually are. Research shows that words not only communicate but change how we think, and sometimes how we see the world. So, how powerful are our words and what can marketers learn from that information?

Language crafts reality, but then again Shakespeare asked what’s in a name? The value of language has been debated for a long time, but now there’s data. Cognitive scientist and professor Lera Boroditsky, who specialises in the Theory of Linguistic Relativity, has done a TedTalk for those of us who are not cognitive scientists.

Language and how we experience the world

Boroditsky talks about an aboriginal community in Australia who don’t use left and right to describe directions. They use north, south, east and west. Even if they were to tell you where the local supermarket is. The result is not just that are very accurate at giving directions, but that they actually have a much greater sense of orientation. So, if you were to ask them at any given moment which direction was south east, they would likely be able to tell you. Unlike most of us in the West. Their language has heightened their sense of orientation.

…what we say

Rather poetically, Boroditsky refers to different languages as different ‘cognitive universes’, which actually illustrates the impact of language rather beautifully. It’s the idea that you literally experience a different world depending on how you use language. For example, she discusses European languages that give objects a masculine or feminine identity. Spanish natives are more likely to describe a bridge (masculine) with typically masculine adjectives. Meanwhile in Germany, where the word for bridge is grammatically feminine, natives are more likely to describe it with typically feminine adjectives.

…what we think

Boroditsky also shows that people pay attention to different things depending on the construction of language. Told a story about an incident featuring a crime, English speakers are more likely to think about the event in relation to who did it because of the typical linguistic emphasis on ‘he or she did XYZ’. Whereas Spanish places the linguistic emphasis on location. So again, language guides the reasoning of events.

…what we see

Rather amazingly, there’s even evidence to show that how we use language can even inform how we see colour. In languages where there are more words for different shades of blue, for example, people are more likely to be able to identify the differences in the colours themselves.

As you might expect, Boroditsky explains it all rather better than we do. So you may be interested to watch her video below. However, before you do that, let’s leave you with this thought. As a marketer, what can we take from this?

The obvious thing is that when you’re marketing to audiences from different cultures, like the Chinese market, which we help many clients to connect with, understanding the roots of their native language and how it plays into the wider culture is as valuable as getting your content grammatically correct. But it goes beyond that. While she probably didn’t mean to relate it to marketing, Boroditsky has summed it up perfectly. To paraphrase: language helps to redefine what’s possible when it comes to thought and how we can use language to create it.

So, what thoughts do you wish to create?