How Can German Affect Cognition

How Can German Affect Cognition

Moving to Germany I knew I must learn German. Must is a strong word perhaps. Most locals, in Berlin at the very least, speak English pretty well. So while it is not a must for handling daily matters, it is still crucial if one intends to fully integrate into German society and understand the cultural intricacies. Few months of German classes are far from enough to actually start speaking proper German. Yet, this time provided me with enough insight to make some plausible claims about the strong ties between the German language to the cognition of a German-speaking man or woman.

Thought and Language

Before we get to the details of German we first need to establish what is the link between thought and Language, a highly debatable discussion in Philosophy, Linguistic and certain fields of Science.

One way to approach language is to look at it as a representation of our thoughts. With this approach, our thoughts, or rather our entire cognitive array is independent and mirrors something that exists either physically, in potential, or as an idea. Language comes into play as a tool of communication, and using it we can transfer the meaning behind one’s thoughts to another. It does not, however, play a role in shaping the cognition of its speakers, it is quite plainly a tool at our disposal. Phew, alright, that is slightly condensed for this topic, but an example will do a better job explaining this.

On the plate there is a strawberry. Hermes wants to tell Maria what is on the plate. In his mind, the thought of a strawberry comes to mind. He doesn’t necessarily need to think of the word to understand it is a strawberry, this is because the idea of a strawberry is independent of language and so is a thought about it. But since he cannot just transplant his thought of a strawberry telepathically to Maria he communicates using language. He understands that the word “strawberry” represents what he is thinking about, which in turn represents the item on the plate. He looks at Maria and tells her “There is a strawberry on the plate”. Hearing the word “Strawberry” Maria conjure the corresponding thought of a Strawberry, so when she sees the actual strawberry it doesn’t come across as a surprise since her thought corresponds to the existing item on the plate.

Another way to approach language is to look at language as the foundation for our thoughts. This hypothesis is called ‘Linguistic Determinism’. With this approach, a thought is not independent of its language counterpart. Quite the opposite – we can think of an object precisely because our language enables us to do so. Hermes could not have grasped what item he was looking at unless his language did not enable him to think of singular objects. He might not have recognized it’s a fruit if he didn’t know such a lingual distinction exists. This approach is quite strict and was generally abandoned by the scientific community. The weaker form of this hypothesis is much more plausible though. According to this version, we could say that language is not necessarily a foundation but it can influence our cognitive perception. This is called  ‘Linguistic Relativity’, and the rest of the article will make a claim within this hypothesis.

There are many examples of Linguistic determinism and Relativity. In his book ‘1984’, George Orwell describes a government that aims to shrink the language to a point where resistance will be inconceivable by anyone. It is not that the thought of resistance would be terrifying, it would just be impossible to express, and subsequently think of anything that will result in a crime against the government. There are also many pieces of research that support the linguistic Relativity approach. one great example is a research that found out that people can actually perceive time differently depending on their native language.

As with many philosophical theories that seem to contradict each other, these different approaches to language actually coexist by practice. Certain elements in our language are just a representation, some actually constrict our cognitive perception to be in a certain way, and some just influence it to an extent.

Since my article is about the effects of the German language on Cognition I just want to conclude that every given language can influence the thought process of its speakers in different ways. Taken to a large-scale society where statistics take effect, you could even recognize certain traits that are common within it, possibly due to the influence of the language.

“Can I have a beer, please?”

Moving on from the philosophical core of the article, I would like to tell you my theory the way it was conceived rather than go straight to grammar and analysis.

Taking a few German classes I felt like I was ready to test my German in the bar. All I wanted was to order something to drink from the bar. It took me a few moments to formulate how should I ask for a beer, I signaled the barman to come closer, and I was all but prepared to say “Can I have a beer please?”.

Kann ich bitte ein Bier haben?”
Can I please a beer have?

Unfortunately, while the barman came closer I realized I was actually unsure which type of beer I was interested in. So instead of saying what was Intended, I had to stop my sentence and think about what I want. So I ended up just saying:

Kann bitte ich
Can please I

And for a short while, until I gathered my thoughts towards which kind of beer is the object of my desires, I couldn’t continue the sentence. As is though, this sentence is just a meaningless sentence with no verb and no object. So it comes to no surprise that the barman was slightly puzzled by what do I want from him.

Eventually, I completed my sentence and got my “Beck’s Ice” beer. However, I was left with the feeling of being constrained and not flexible with asking for something. Philosophically shocked I immediately started to ask the German friends around me how can I make sense of my sentence if I have to think about what do I want while I am talking. Some didn’t really understand what was the problem. Those that did, replied, “Just think about what you want to order before you ask for it”. And then it hit me. When my German teacher told me “In German, you have to know what you want to say before you say it” she was not joking around. This is an actual concept in the German language – if you don’t know what you are about to say you will often end up saying non-sensical sentences.

Later on, while discussing the issue with friends I was calmed down and was told that the way I asked for a beer was actually not the common way. The common and more mature way of asking for a beer is actually:

Ich hätte gerne ein bier
I would like a beer

With this form, being unsure of your desires leaves you with a sensical sentence: “I would like a…”. Rejoiced that I could think while I am asking for something to drink in a bar I could finally have a good night’s sleep after countless sleepless nights. But actually, the core issue of this “think before you say” concept was not solved, and this required some additional German classes and research.

German Intricacies

This “Think before you say” concept is actually tightly connected to some grammatical structures in German. I will provide two grammatical structures as an example. This might not be a comprehensive list of structures that the “Think->Say” concept applies to, but it will provide the gist of it.

Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that are used in conjunction with another verb in order to express ability, possibility, permission, or obligation. Some of the most prominent of these verbs are “Can”, “May”, “Shall”, “Must”, “Will”. Like mentioned before, these verbs come with an additional verb in order to express a certain thing about the secondary verb.

Wir können tennis spielen
We can play tennis

In this example, the verb “can” is used in order to express the ability to play.

There is a key difference between German and other languages – the order of the words. In English, naturally, the modal verb is followed immediately by the secondary verb, and then the object follows. The same is true for Spanish and Hebrew. In all of these the structure is:

[Subject] + [Modal Verb] + [Secondery Verb] + [Object}
We can play tennis

In German the structure is different. The modal verb and the secondary verb are separated by the object and the secondary verb is typically found at the end of the sentence:

[Subject] + [Modal Verb] +[Object] + [Secondery Verb]
We can tennis play

Now, this is not just a mere small difference. Usually when we think while we talk it is The object of the sentence that is obscure and requires thinking about. We know we want to play, but we are not sure what. We know we want to eat, but we are not sure what. If the action is uncertain we would usually say nothing at all in the first place. We wouldn’t say “Tennis” and then think if we want to play or watch, We wouldn’t say “Cake” and then think what can be done with it.

Now let us assume the object requires some pondering. An English, Spanish, or Hebrew sentence would still make a lot of sense. Saying “We can play…” does have some sense in it. It’s missing a clear part, but at least we have enough information regarding the action that is about to be performed. This is because the suspense is in the end:

[Subject] +[Action] + <Thinking Suspense>

In German, it is not the same case. Since the object is the middle of the sentence, if our sentence requires thinking we are left with these sort of sentences:

[Subject] + <Thinking Suspense>

Thinking too much will leave us with a very lacking sentence that includes only a subject and modality: “We can…”. This sort of sentence means nearly nothing, there is not much informative value in it and for that reason, if one doesn’t know the object there is just no reason for him to start talking in the first place.

These modal verbs are also extremely important in forming questions, as the purpose of many questions is the modality of the question: Asking whether you can do something if something is allowed, or if someone wants to participate in some action. This is not just another grammatical structure, it is one of the most important structures in the language. To grasp the importance one needs only to carefully examine the use of these modal verbs in one conversation.

Separable Verbs

Another peculiar grammatical structure of the German language (shared with Dutch, Afrikaans, and Hungarian) is separable verbs. English has similar verbs, for example: “turn off”. In English though, these verbs always stick together:

I turn off the light

What makes verbs like this separable in German is, surprise surprise, the fact they are in many cases separated. “ausmachen” which is “turn off” is actually composed of “aus” (off) and machen (to make). But in a proper sentence it will actually look like this:

Ich mache das Licht aus
I turn the light off

Once again we have the object stuck in the middle of our action:

[Subject] + [Verb – Part 1] + [Object] + [Verb – Part 2]

And once again this renders our sentence quite useless, explaining nothing more than the subject should we think too long:

[Subject] + [Obscured Action] + <Thinking Suspense>

The fact that part of the verb is still in the sentence does not help us understanding the action as there are other separable verbs that share the same first part. For example, “Anmachen” which means “turn on”. So, Saying just the first part “Ich mache” can actually be completed both as “turn off” and “turn on”, meaning two completely opposite actions. Not to mention that “machen” doesn’t even necessarily correspond to “turn” without the subject or the separated part of the verb “an”.

Once again, we have a structure that if the object is not clear, evoking the sentence is meaningless and it’s better just to think about the object prior to saying it.

The Cognitive Traits that the German Language Promotes

As I have shown, the concept of “Think->Say” is rooted deep within some key grammatical structures in the German language. But is it just grammar, or maybe like I hinted in at the beginning of the article, the grammar actually influence the cognitive array of the German-language speakers?

One thing to notice is that the “Think->Say” concept can be more accurately understood also as “Think before Object” (even though, the actions are partly missing as well). Basically, if one thinks for too long, the sentence remains without an object and thus becomes quite lacking. This means that a person who learns German will be discouraged from thinking while he talks. Instead, he will be encouraged to think carefully and thoroughly of the object before speaking. This is especially significant when we speak of German as a native language since babies learn how to speak at the same time they shape much of their mind and personality.

The question now turns to what is the importance of thinking while talking? What does it give a person that careful planning does not? What cognitive patterns often require thinking while talking? What patterns often require thinking prior to speaking? I would say there are four cognitive patterns that are fairly obvious.


The first is flexibility, the ability to cope with a changed state of affairs, or with a change of heart. When one can start speaking and change the object of the sentence he learns to cope with change. The change can be external or internal, he learns to deal with it and change the object to fit the new state. The smallest of situations can be a great example, so let’s think of asking a pen from someone, realizing that you want to be able to erase what you write, and then asking for a pencil instead. Another example is a change of heart from craving a beer to craving wine. When one is encouraged to think carefully prior to speaking or asking for something he might skip that life lesson to a degree. In that case, in order to change one’s mind, a new process of thorough consideration might need to take place instead of just adapting to new variables.


A second pattern is being spontaneous. Living a life where you accept that you can act without complete information, leaving some decisions for later on. A person that is encouraged to always think of the action and object as an inseparable couple might have a hard time to accept spontaneous proposals. How could he easily imagine or propose going somewhere without knowing where, when it is complicated to express it in words? This is an easy lesson to learn when in the context of a sentence you can suggest doing something prior to realizing and decide exactly what slightly later.

Thorough thinking

Thorough thinking is a bit of a given at this point of the article. It is clear that when a person is encouraged to think prior to speaking he learns that careful planning and thorough thinking are important. This can be a huge asset in many things for obvious reasons. That said, this merit can also quickly turn into overthinking to the point of a freeze, where one is not able to express himself or act until the object is completely understood. Once I asked a German to describe me how typical relationships are in Germany. He answered that Germans do not jump hastily into relationships, they have to be sure that is exactly what they want. He added that breaking up is also a process that typically takes a lot of time and a decent amount of overthinking it. I find that this example resonates quite a bit with this cognitive trait.

Being a great listener

This is probably my favorite trait that German teach. Since many sentences in German just don’t make complete sense until the very end, one actually needs to listen until the very end to make any sense of what a person tries to say. When I imagine a typical heated discussion one of the first things that come to mind is people barging into each other sentences, not listening, caring more about giving voice to their opinion than finding a solution or a compromise. A discussion in German is naturally less prone to this behavior, which is a marvel as far as I’m concerned.

Closing words

It is important to me that this theory that I presented will be taken the right way. First, this is a theory only. It is backed up by philosophical reasoning and not with a complete sociological research. Personally, I find it resonates with my experience in Germany, but this is very much debatable.

Second, all the examples presented throughout the article can be expressed in German in one way or another. I do not attempt have a “Linguistic Determinist” claim here. The German language allows flexibility and spontaneity in other grammatical structures. And it also allows people to behave without thorough thinking and with being a lousy listeners. But it is likely that it does promote these traits better than other languages. Of course, Germany is full of people of all kinds, still, it makes complete sense that within the Germany society as a whole these cognitive traits are quite common. And it is not surprising that these same traits are also slightly less common within the younger German generation which is often bilingual.

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