Learning new words may mean thinking new thoughts

A new study from MIT suggests we need words like "six" to conceive of the quantity six.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
3 min read

Are our minds stuck inside our vocabulary boxes?

Getty Images

As someone who's bilingual, I can't tell you how many times I've hit this conversational roadblock: "Gosh, why isn't there a word for that in English?" Even though I can use other words to explain my term of choice in a roundabout way, it never feels quite like I've done the meaning justice -- like only those who know the word itself will understand its precise context.

This little language blip isn't unique to me. Philosophers, psychologists and linguists have debated the hurdle for years, wondering whether language somehow influences, or even restricts, our thoughts. How firmly are our minds stuck inside our vocabulary boxes?

Maybe my knowledge of a non-English word means I have a non-English thought -- one I can't fully convey to an English-only speaker. Or perhaps that thought is ubiquitous among all humans, and can be expressed as long as you pinpoint the right words. 

In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley might have made some headway. They found the "clearest evidence to date" that our conception of number quantities -- larger than four -- relies on our knowledge of number words, such as "six."

Ultimately, this finding "supports the broader claim that language can enable new conceptual abilities," study author Edward Gibson, MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences, said in a statement. Perhaps learning new words really means thinking new thoughts.

Gibson and his team were able to come to their conclusion thanks to a special group of study subjects: the Tsimane' people. This remote civilization of about 13,000 individuals resides in the Bolivian peripheries of the Amazon rainforest, isolated enough to abide by totally distinctive language customs. 

In 2014, a separate study, also conducted by Gibson, revealed Tsimane' children learn about numbers a bit differently than kids in industrialized countries such as the United States. That's because numbers aren't integral to the Tsimane' lifestyle. They learn number words and quantities from one through four just like kids in the states, but they continue from five onward at varying rates. 

Because of this, Tsimane' adults have assorted repertoires of number words. 

Zeroing in on this unique characteristic, the new study recruited 15 Tsimane' people who could verbally count somewhere between 6 and 20. The team asked the subjects to complete a task called "orthogonal matching," lining up objects, such as batteries, in a pattern. 

They laid out a certain number of objects before participants horizontally, then asked them to line up the corresponding number vertically.

The team found the Tsimane' people succeeded at the task only up to just below the number they could count to. For instance, someone who knew number words through 15 began making mistakes around 13 or 14.

"Beyond that range," the researchers write in their paper, "they resorted to numerical approximation. These results resolve competing accounts of previous findings and provide unambiguous evidence that large exact number concepts are enabled by language."

However, Gibson notes that "language" can be thought of pretty loosely in the case of numbers. "When we get to larger numbers, even just five and six, we need some way to represent that, if you want to represent it exactly," Gibson said. "It doesn't have to be words -- you could use your fingers or something like that -- but you need some kind of independent representation of the numbers."

Though focused on language's numerical realm, the team's discovery appears to slightly tip the scale in the direction of: Language directly dictates the content of our thoughts.