Jun 3, 2020 in Research

Importance of Language for Understanding Human Behavior

Whilst language is an abstract system of symbols and meanings, it seems to affect human behavior and cognition in many practical ways. Personal experience and observations suggest that a mastery of language has an impact on a person’s conduct. For example, a person who has well-developed, eloquent language skills may feel more empowered during negotiations and communications and behave more confidently. Although human behavior can be understood by analyzing a host of personal and environmental influences, language remains an important factor that can help to interpret and understand human behavior.

Language is important for comprehending drivers a person’s social behavior. Bacalu explains that language impacts one’s social identity and social cognition. The author explains that every word and a syntactic structure correspond with behavior that solves recurring social problems. Furthermore, he states that language provides insight into attitudes, beliefs, and shared knowledge of members of the community. Bacalu’s explanation suggests that language possesses an interpretive power in helping to understand human behavior. Hedge explains that changes in language-related mental schemes and cognitive concepts can affect behavioral processes. Therefore, dynamics and mechanisms whereby language affects behavior demonstrate that there are connections between language and behavior, as well as associations between language skills and behavioral development. 


The influence of language extends beyond social behavior since the language one speaks affects worldviews, thoughts, and mental processes. For example, Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, examined the association between language and worldviews, thoughts, and mental life. The author reached the conclusion that different languages influence different cognitive skills and that people who speak different languages think differently. She brings up several interesting examples to demonstrate that grammar affects a person’s spatial orientation, the perception of the environment, behavior, and abstract concepts. For instance, Boroditsky explains that people from indigenous Thaayorre tribe in Australia possess excellent spatial orientation abilities because their native language uses cardinal-direction grammar that makes constant spatial awareness a part of their everyday conversations and activities. In another example, Boroditsky states that people who speak Mandarin, English, and Ayumara (language spoken in Andes, South America) have a different perception of time, past, and future. Boroditsky explains that English speakers refer to time as a horizontal phenomenon and say, “The past is behind us, and the future is ahead of us.” However, Chinese who speak Mandarin have a vertical concept of time and say, ““The future is beneath our feet, and the past is above us.” 

Notably, Ayumara people would say, “The future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us.” 

The remarkable thing about each of the described examples is that actions and body language of English, Chinese, and Aymara correspond with different grammatical structure. Boroditsky explains that while English-speaking people unconsciously sway their bodies back when thinking about the past and forward when thinking about the future, the body language of Aymara people from Andes is exactly opposite. They unconsciously sway their bodies back when thinking about the future and forward when thinking about the past. Described examples demonstrate several dynamics. First, differences in language and grammar account for differences in cognition and spatial orientation. Second, differences in language can lead to differences in the development of spatial and cognitive abilities. Third, differences in languages shape different cognitive patterns and abilities. Fourth, linguistic differences affect fundamental domains of thought such as the perception of time. Therefore, the language one speaks can reveal how and why a person perceives the world, categorizes events and directions, makes meaning out of the environment, and constructs reality. In other words, language can aid in understanding human behavior and explain behavioral differences between people who speak different languages. 

Considering the impact a language has on a person’s behavior and cognition, the issue that evokes interest is whether learning and speaking other languages (besides one’s native tongue) influences a person’s behavior and perception of the world. Banga and Suri state that learning more than one language enhances a person’s social, emotional, and intellectual development and cognitive skills. They compare a language with a road map of culture since it is a vehicle for developing and transmitting culture, as well as ensuring continuity of society and facilitating its effective functioning. The authors claim that language shapes emotions and thoughts, determining the perception of reality, and serves as a medium of expression of intents. Banga and Suri believe that language in itself is an important form of human behavior. They add that when a person can speak more than one language, he or she possesses better language skills and has a better ability to express emotions and attitudes, protect interests, justify behavior and claims, and discuss actions of others constructively. 

Therefore, language can be used to understand a broad range of behaviors. Also, Banga and Suri point out that language can help to understand not only individual behavior but group behavior as well. The authors explain that language can be used to interpret and understand attitudes of social groups. For example, language can help to understand educational, social, political, and economic aspects of practices, behaviors, and habits of groups.

Banga and Suri explain that when they state that language facilitates intellectual development, they mean that it fosters the development of imagination, problem-solving abilities, creativity, an ability to process and organize information and pay attention, and logical reasoning. When the authors argue that language facilitates moral development, they mean that it helps to develop “language-dependent conceptualizations”, analyze and interpret psychological states, and establish relationships between language and emotions. Moreover, language impacts social development in several ways since it develops communication skills and enhances understanding of self and others, social interactions, and socialization. Therefore, since language impacts social, intellectual, and moral development, it is reasonable to assume that language can be used to understand individual and social behavior.

As the analysis of reviewed sources demonstrates, language helps to interpret human behavior and understand why behaviors of people that speak different languages may be different. For example, Bacalu states that language helps to explain behavior since it provides insight into attitudes, beliefs, and shared knowledge of members of the community. Hedge explains that language-related mental schemes and cognitive concepts that affect behavioral processes and affects behavioral development. Boroditsky argues that linguistic differences account for cognitive and spatial abilities and differences in world perception and body language. Finally, Banga and Suri claim that language can aid in understanding social and moral behavior. Therefore, although cited authors focus on different types of behaviors that language helps to understand, they agree that linguistic analysis does help to understand human behavior.

In everyday life, language impacts human behavior in numerous ways and helps to interpret and understand human actions. For example, language can explain variations in cognitive and spatial abilities between people who speak different tongues. Moreover, it can influence individual and social behavior, attitudes, and behavioral development. Furthermore, language shapes social, moral, and intellectual development. Hence, linguistic analysis may provide important clues that can shed light on reasons behind certain behaviors. Therefore, since language plays an important role in shaping behavior, it can be analyzed to reveal linguistic peculiarities that account for differences in practices and attitudes of individuals and groups that speak different languages.


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