Lost in Translation

by Lorenzo Piccoli

The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that “to have a second language is to have a second soul.” But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky’s theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don’t really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking. Today, new cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; this gets evident, for instance, when we think of the different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish. Read the article on the Wall Street Journal.