Language does shape thought

Does the language we speak affect the way we think?

The answer is yes. The way language influences how we look at our world helps explain why we find some people strange, peculiar, odd in their views as they express them in words. How can someone think that? we wonder.

A recent Radio National program, All in the Mind, has looked at research evidence that supports how language shapes thought. One area of research is about how we think of time in spatial terms. English speakers tend to see the future is ahead, and the past behind. Some Mandarin speakers see the past as up and the future as down.

Metaphors also have a role to play in influencing how we think. We only have to think of how political leaders seek to influence us by how they define and frame events and issues, to realise the power of metaphors. The program describes how people who see crime as a virus ravaging cities see the need to inoculate citizens through education. Those who see crime as a beast are inclined to solve this problem with more police, gaols and harsher sentences.

Each of us has habits in the way we use our language. Two career-related language habits that come to mind are our ability to promote our case during a job interview and what metaphors we use to think about our career.

One reason people find job interviews difficult is that they don’t use their language in a self-promotional way. So when they need to, they find it difficult to change habits.

A traditional metaphor for thinking about a career is the ladder. We climb the corporate hierarchy, reaching higher levels until we reach the top. Each step up entails new responsibilities, more status, more money and perks.

These days, with many rungs removed from the corporate ladder and fewer opportunities, the ladder is neither accurate nor useful as a way of thinking about a career. Not everyone wants the responsibility of seniority.

How we think about time is also relevant. We see our career as stretching ahead of us. Old jobs are behind us. This linear view has limitations. To go back to a previous role, employer, pay scale, may be seen as a backward step which usually has negative connotations.

A journey is a commonly used metaphor for career. We travel a path. Who knows where it will lead? Sometimes we backtrack, mark time, stand still, take a byway.

  • What metaphors do you use to think about your career?
  • How might it shape how you see your career?
  • What limitations does this metaphor have?
  • What possibilities does it offer?
  • How else could you think about your career?
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.