Have you thought about how your native language affects how you act? You’ve been speaking it since you were a baby so you may not even realize!
It’s more than just culture. Each language affects how a person processes information.
All languages convey the same amount of information per minute. But Chinese gives that information differently from most languages.
So how does Chinese, deemed the hardest language to learn, shape the thoughts of the people who speak it?
Seeing the Big Picture
In Chinese, parts don’t exist without the whole.
It has been this way even before Mandarin Chinese existed, at least since the times of the ancient book Yi Jing.
This applies to many things like how pictures are seen, how written characters are read, how space and time are processed and how nouns are associated.
It sounds hard to understand. But hang on and we’ll break it down for you.
Chinese Visual Cues
Did you know that Chinese speakers are better at remembering an image’s background features than its main features?
This means compared to English speakers, who focus on the main object in an image, Chinese speakers look more to surrounding objects. The results are similar for other Asian languages that use Chinese characters.
This habit was probably formed from reading Chinese.
Reading Chinese characters requires you to look at the radical parts to recognize the whole word.
Furthermore, most characters have more than one meaning. That means you must look at surrounding characters to get the full meaning for one word in a phrase.
It is the same with sentences. Conjunctions like “then” or “and” can be omitted from Chinese sentences. So you must look at the whole sentence to guess its meaning.
Time and Location
Chinese grammar rules for time and location also use the concept of the whole being more important than the individual parts.
On forms, you write the date in Chinese by writing the year, month, day, time. Addresses go in order of country, province, city, ZIP code, street, house number. Western addresses are reversed, with categories going from smallest to largest.
In sentences, locations and times are often at the beginning. This places the context before the main action of the sentence. It’s another instance where the background holds more focus.
Wǒ zuótiān wǎnshàng zài fùmǔ jiā shuìle bā gè zhōngtóu.
I, last night at my parents’ house, slept eight hours.
I slept for eight hours at my parents’ house last night.
Chinese has language features that make it easier to account for time and numbers.
One feature is the large-to-small arrangement of numbers.
Each number is written like a math problem.
Example: 二十七 èrshíqī = two tens + seven = twenty seven
People can only remember a certain number of syllables from a series of numbers at any given time.
When you say monosyllabic Chinese numbers like “èr shí qī” in your head it has less syllables than “twen-ty se-ven” in English. That makes it easier to add numbers even when they get bigger.
Another language feature is the orientation of numbers and time. Chinese speakers think of them both as organized vertically, using words like “up” and “down” instead of “ahead” or “behind.”
For example, “下个月” means next month, but literally means down a month.
But the peculiar thing about time is that in Mandarin the future is not distinct from the past and present.
There are no verb tenses to say something will happen in the future, or that it happened in the past. You must add another phrase if you want to specify timing.
This encourages a holistic view of actions over time. This view has been linked to preparing more for the future and saving more money.
This does not mean that speaking Chinese will automatically make you better at saving and accounting. But it will encourage those habits.
Relationships Between Words
Chinese speakers are more likely to think of a cow and grass as a group than a cow and a chicken.
You might think cows and chickens are both animals, so they should be grouped together. But interrelationships matter more than categories. The cow and grass are together because the cow eats the grass. A chicken does not interact with a cow.
Interrelationships also factor in how nouns and verbs are made. Most of the time it is a literal combination of two words’ functions and result.
Here are some examples:
Open/ turn on car
Speak by electricity
Shoes that keep you cool
Alcohol made from grapes
Interrelationships between nouns are also ingrained in social hierarchy.
In Chinese there is a proper way to address each person. These words carry a lot of information about the person’s relationship to you.
Noodle shop owner
Younger cousin that is your Dad’s sister’s or Mom’s sibling’s son
表弟 Biǎo dì
Any lady old enough to be your mother
Interrelationships are so ingrained that Mandarin doesn’t use any special legal language unlike Western languages. Chinese lawyers use common words without overly detailing every feature of a contract, because everyone can understand them.
What Does It Mean?
There are still studies being done today to test how language shapes our thoughts.
In the case of Mandarin, we’ve seen how it affects future actions, organization, visual cues and arithmetic.
Next time you are looking at pictures or scheduling a time, think about the way your native language might shape your thoughts.