Linguistic relativity: Why understanding the world through language matters
Linguistic relativity or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a proposal that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition. The strongest version of the hypothesis holds that language shapes thought, but weaker versions suggest that it only influences thought. The hypothesis has been controversial from the beginning, with many linguists and cognitive scientists rejecting it. However, some research provides evidence for the idea that language can affect how people see the world.
The strongest form of the linguistic relativity hypothesis is that language determines thought. For example, a culture with no words for "color" would view things as black and white. In reality, people from that culture would simply use different words to describe colors. If they want to describe the green color, for example, they might say "the color of grass." This brings us to weaker forms of hypothesis that are still supported by the scientific community.
If some language does not include the words to describe colors, people using this language are unlikely to think about them on a daily basis. It will take them longer to come up with a phrase for the color than it would for someone from another culture to just say the color. Inuktitut (Inuit Eskimo language) is one example, which has more than 50 variants to describe snow. (fresh snow, fine snow, wet snow, ...etc).
What if language has no words for numbers? How would you count without words for numbers? Piraha is the only known anumeric language (actually it's a dialect of Mura language) that is still in use today. Native speakers use words like "few" and "many" to describe quantities, which makes it more difficult for them to exactly compare different quantities. If you are shown a picture with apples and asked how many apples you see on the picture, you would count each apple naming the number in your mind until you get to the last one. This is what we learn to do as children and do it on a daily basis. Most probably piraha language speakers use another way to count things, they might use their fingers to count, which is what we also do sometimes.
Other words that shape the way we think are "right" and "left". Most of modern languages and cultures are egocentric, which means that we describe our surroundings from our own perspective. "On your left" or "turn right at the next intersection" are the expressions we use to give directions. No wonder we get lost easily as we are not used to thinking about our absolute positioning, but rather position the world relative to ourselves.
Native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr - an Aboriginal language in Australia use absolute positioning when describing their surroundings. They use cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) not only to give directions, but also to describe everyday objects. If you're facing north, you're reading east to west; if you're facing south, though, you're reading west to east. This makes people from this culture very good at understanding exact directions even if they are somewhere new.
In conclusion, language does not determine how we think or perceive the world, but it definitely influences our thoughts. Some words that are used every day help us shape our thinking patterns and develop a cognitive structure. The words we don't have might make it more difficult to interpret the world around us, but we can always come up with other ways to count, describe colors.