Sometimes I get stuck pondering these questions. One odd language distinction that seems to come up often is the difference between squirrels and chipmunks, and the fact that most Spanish speakers won't differentiate between the two (saying both ardillas). Perhaps when I see one of those animals, I think about them differently based on my native language’s necessity to differentiate between them. My culture and language guide me into interpreting what I see distinctly. Seeing a squirrel, I would think of Rocky, or the Sahne Nuss character, but never Alvin or Chip & Dale, as a Spanish speaker might.
Or how about the use of Se me olvidó (basically, it was forgotten to me). This usually comes up when I’m eager to put the blame on my boyfriend for whatever HE forgets by complete fault of his own, but the way this expression uses the passive voice almost gives him an excuse by taking the blame off the subject. I often wonder if the way our languages put emphasis on different parts of the phrase actually changes our perception of how this event happens, perhaps saying this phrase makes a person feel more like it was out of their control.
I saved an interesting article by Lera Boroditsky that discusses some theories surrounding the first lines of my post. She acknowledges speakers of various languages have to encode different details of their experiences in order to verbalize them (sometimes gender, quantity, how you acquired the information, time/tense, whether the action was completed). However, the question remained of whether the reflection of something in speech actually means that people are interpreting or thinking differently, rather than merely saying something differently.
One very convincing example that Boroditsky gives in showing that language may indeed affect the way we understand the world are her experiments and research with the Kuuk Thaayorre aboriginal community in Austrailia. She said that instead of relative reference frames used in English like right and left, they use absolute reference frames such as North, South, East and West. This means that to speak these people must be spatially aware. In tests, they would always arrange events along a timeline going East to West, regardless of where they were facing, which also implies they must have always known which way they were situated during the test (as I am sure many English and Spanish speakers normally wouldn't. As someone who is fairly oriented this way, I know when people gesture to point they are nearly always pointing in the wrong direction, both for cardinal and relative directions).
I remember first writing about how language relates to time and how people interpret the world as part of one of my first papers in Chile, which I did about an indigenous group in the north, the Aymara, who see the past in front of them, and the future behind them, as their language does. Whereas in English and the majority of other major languages, we “face” the future, the past is “behind you,” and you “look forward to what the future holds.” However, the Aymara would say their future is behind their back and they are looking upon their past, so what they see in front of them they know to be true because it has already happened. An interesting quote reasoned that the Aymara had been described as really patient, because “'if you can't see the future,' says Marta Hardman, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, 'there seems less point in planning.'”
If you’re interested, this NPR story and the articles above also talk about many other examples, such as whether languages talk about duration in terms of length (“long time”) or quantity (“much time, big time”), our ability to distinguish colors based on our languages division into names, and also some discussion and tests about Shakespeare’s quote, “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”
Because of these differences, in thinking of gender, time, etc.. learning a new language in some sense also means learning a new way of thinking.
I thought one of the more interesting topics were tests done about how language changes the way we think based on the assignment of gender, because thats something my mind has struggled with in going from English to Spanish. Boroditsky said in art 85% of the time things are represented as male or female depending on the concept’s Gender, (e.g. Russian painters painted death as a woman because the word is feminine, and German painters painted death as a man) and in the NPR clip it mentioned that people would have trouble conceptualizing an object as having a female name if the object is assigned male gender in the language. People also assign masculine or feminine characteristics depending on the gender given in their language, suggesting speakers of different languages have entirely different perceptions of objects. The NPR link has an excellent discussion of this involving the word bridge in Spanish (m) and German (f).
According to studies, this also happen when a person begins learning a new language with gender assignments.
This is one of the ones that seems to affect me the most because gender is something I understand in Spanish, but I still make mistakes. Not having a native ability nor all words so firmly ingrained, a reverse factor occurs in which the way I see the world shapes how I try to form the language. One of the reasons I make these mistakes is when the way I interpret and categorize the word clashes with the way Spanish labels gender (that is, when I'm not just taking a shot in the dark, haha). Perhaps as words and their genders become more stable in my mind, they begin to take on a slightly different meaning.
For instance a few times I have over-generalized and tried to make all words referring to men, with masculine word patterns, even though many words such as el artista, el policia, el dentista, etc.. don't follow that pattern and are actually correct. This is also why its difficult to learn words like el poema, el clima, and la radio (where the article doesn’t seem to have the same gender as the noun it precedes). Or words that might seem to portray opposite genders than what the object refers to. One of the funniest examples I can think of that clashes in my mind is la tulita (slang for “the penis,” but its feminine).
In fact one of my nicknames for my boyfriend means "little baby" in Spanish. But at first I felt silly using the word guaguita for a male, which is feminine regardless of the actual gender of the referent, and started jokingly changing the ending to a form which typically is used with masculine words. It stuck, hence ending up with the nickname guaguito.