Does the language we speak influence our non-verbal thoughts? This question is a stratifying one: some think that language is synonymous with thought, while others consider it a component of our mental abilities or a type of output, no more representative of underlying cogitation than the way we walk or move our arms.
A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science weighs in on this matter with experimental results indicating that individuals who speak very different languages (English, Turkish, Chinese, & Spanish) seem to non-verbally represent events in similar ways.
Specifically, in one task, the researchers asked their subjects to communicate an event such as “boy tilts glass” (read in each individual’s native language) with gestures. In a second task, they were asked to reconstruct an event using pictures. In order to quantify performance in these tasks, the researchers examined the ordering that gestures or pictures were used. They reasoned that because grammatical structures dictate that words be used in potentially divergent ways depending on language, that this structure might extend to the order in which gestures or pictures are used as well. Interestingly, they found that there was no quantitative difference in performance between speakers of different languages, suggesting that there is a common underlying mode of event representation which is minimally influenced by spoken language.
1. Goldin-Meadow S, So WC, Ozyürek A, Mylander C. (2008) The natural order of events: how speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 105(27):9163-8.