Back in the 20th century before laptops, smart phones, and the Internet dominated student lives, I took my first course in anthropology. Since that time, I have been fascinated by the concept of cultural relativism and Benjamin Lee Whorf's linguistic relativism (or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), which views language as a cultural construct that shapes our thoughts and the way in which we view the world.
The academic debate about the influence of language on thought goes back at least a few centuries, and the discussion continues to pop up and to cause me to reflect on my English teaching practices.Students are often confused when they try to translate English into their own language or when they seek a word in English from their native tongue. Sometimes there isn't an equivalent concept, term, or item that exists in both languages. Most translating dictionaries do not show the range of usages of a single word in another language, so how far should I go in explaining to students that when they enter another language, their thinking and behavior might change?
Last year, I ran across this TED blog post and talk which made me pause to think more globally about human language, the English I teach, the vocabulary that enters American English from other languages, and the grammatical rules that continue to be broken and change as my American English becomes a species of English.
The findings of Keith Chen presented in this TED talk are provocative. (The published paper related to the talk is accessible here for free.) Chen's long-term research and surveys provide some compelling evidence to support the view that something basic like the existence of a future tense or lack of one can result in noticeable and measurable differences in behavior. Patterns of saving, for example, are correlated with the existence of a future tense. Wow!