How Does Your Vocabulary Influence How You Think?

It seems clear that your word choices impact how you express yourself to others. But I wonder if it might be true that the words you know can influence how you think about a particular topic.

How does your vocabulary influence how you think?

Related questions: How does the language you speak shape you? How can you grow your vocabulary? Why do accents exist?


3 thoughts on “How Does Your Vocabulary Influence How You Think?”

  1. Vocabulary is the building blocks of our minds, gives us our ability to think, and even defines in very significant ways who we are. I heard part of a story on NPR’s This American Life about young people in an underdeveloped region who were put in a special orphanage for deaf children. There weren’t the resources to teach them a form of sign language, but they ended up inventing their own, which they passed along to each new micro-generation of young people. Eventually, they aged out of that program, but there was another program that allowed them to gather as adults.

    The language created by the first micro-generation was very similar to pantomime, but it became increasingly sophisticated over not too many years. What originally involved a more limited vocabulary and expressing it with their full bodies became a more expansive vocabulary expressed mostly with the hands and wrists.

    At a certain point, there were researchers that wanted to determine how cognitive functioning was developing. One of the tests they used was a simple story involving two brothers. One with a toy and the other who wanted to use it. The one with the toy forbid his brother, put it under his bed, and left the room. While he was gone, the other brother played with it and then hid it in the toy box when the first brother came back into the room.

    The researchers asked where the first brother looked to find his toy. The earlier micro-generations said in the toy box. The later micro-generations said under the bed. The difference between the sets of young people was their ability to think someone else’s thoughts. The later generations could put themselves in the first brother’s perspective and understand that he would assume it was where he left it. The earlier generations could only respond with objective reality.

    The researchers attributed the more sophisticated cognitive ability to larger and more nuanced vocabulary. The earliest generation only had one word for thinking. The later generations had 12 (think, remember, forget, etc.). What’s interesting is, when the later generations also aged out and joined the earlier generations as adults, they taught the earlier generations the additional vocabulary and, in later tests, the earlier group developed the same cognitive abilities.

    1. Dave, I can’t resist responding to your well written comments. Like Michael and Lee, I hope this blog will create a community who want to learn from each other.

      As I read your comments several things occurred to me. I thought about my granddaughters who are 11 and 7, and how large their vocabulary is and how advantaged they are to be able to express themselves verbally. I’m a person who has trouble expressing himself verbally, so I’m impressed with articulate people.

      Also, I wondered about how the world has so many different languages, and what a barrier that can be, especially in a shrinking world– I was in France and Italy this year, unable to speak the language, and so I know how difficult that can be.

      Lastly, I wonder about non-verbal ways of thinking, and how thinking with images instead of words can have it’s advantages. I have a tendency to want to name things I see; a bird, a person, a place, etc. Even God. The Hebrew scriptures tell us that the Israelites couldn’t speak God’s name because it was sacred.

      I think of Eliza Doolittle, in the play/movie My Fair Lady, singing “Words, words, words…don’t speak of love, show me.” In other words, actions speak louder than words.

      Thanks, Dave, Lee, and Michael, for giving me something to think about this morning.

  2. Another thought or two. Words are fine but pictures can be better. Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of Jesus just sold at auction for $450,000,000. (and I believe it was an Arab Prince from Abu Dhabi who bought it). Ironic!
    In my prayers/meditations, I sometimes try to picture myself in a particular scene. There are words, but also sights, sounds, smells, and feelings to make it more real. So while words are important, so are pictures to move thoughts from your head to your heart and gut. Peace and happy holidays everyone!

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