For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity. Lera Boroditsky's Edge Bio Page. Humans communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages, each differing from the next in innumerable ways.
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For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.
Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.
Lera Boroditsky's Edge Bio Page. Humans communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages, each differing from the next in innumerable ways. Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives? Do people who speak different languages think differently simply because they speak different languages?
Does learning new languages change the way you think? Do polyglots think differently when speaking different languages? These questions touch on nearly all of the major controversies in the study of mind. They have engaged scores of philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists, and they have important implications for politics, law, and religion. Yet despite nearly constant attention and debate, very little empirical work was done on these questions until recently.
I often start my undergraduate lectures by asking students the following question: which cognitive faculty would you most hate to lose? Most of them pick the sense of sight; a few pick hearing. Once in a while, a wisecracking student might pick her sense of humor or her fashion sense. Almost never do any of them spontaneously say that the faculty they'd most hate to lose is language. Yet if you lose or are born without your sight or hearing, you can still have a wonderfully rich social existence.
You can have friends, you can get an education, you can hold a job, you can start a family. But what would your life be like if you had never learned a language? Could you still have friends, get an education, hold a job, start a family? Language is so fundamental to our experience, so deeply a part of being human, that it's hard to imagine life without it.
But are languages merely tools for expressing our thoughts, or do they actually shape our thoughts? Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another.
And a lot! Let's take a very hypothetical example. Suppose you want to say, "Bush read Chomsky's latest book. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender.
So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you'd also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you'd use a different form of the verb than if he'd diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you'd have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you'd use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you'd use a different verb form.
Clearly, languages require different things of their speakers. Does this mean that the speakers think differently about the world? Do English, Indonesian, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up attending to, partitioning, and remembering their experiences differently just because they speak different languages? For some scholars, the answer to these questions has been an obvious yes. Just look at the way people talk, they might say. Certainly, speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world just so they can use their language properly.
Scholars on the other side of the debate don't find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don't include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn't mean that English speakers aren't paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they're not talking about them.
It's possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently. Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language especially one not closely related to those you know is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions.
Whether it's distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say. Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it's impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it's impossible for language not to shape thought.
Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can't be true, let's find out what is true.
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.
The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going? The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames like Kuuk Thaayorre and languages that rely on relative reference frames like English.
What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space.
So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.
To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression e. Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction.
If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. What will they do? The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers.
Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on.
This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already usually much better than I did , but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. People's ideas of time differ across languages in other ways. For example, English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors e.
Mandarin speakers talk about time vertically more often than English speakers do, so do Mandarin speakers think about time vertically more often than English speakers do? Imagine this simple experiment. I stand next to you, point to a spot in space directly in front of you, and tell you, "This spot, here, is today.
Where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow? But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or eight times more often than do English speakers. Even basic aspects of time perception can be affected by language. For example, English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length e. For example, when asked to estimate duration, English speakers are more likely to be confused by distance information, estimating that a line of greater length remains on the test screen for a longer period of time, whereas Greek speakers are more likely to be confused by amount, estimating that a container that is fuller remains longer on the screen.
An important question at this point is: Are these differences caused by language per se or by some other aspect of culture? How do we know that it is language itself that creates these differences in thought and not some other aspect of their respective cultures? One way to answer this question is to teach people new ways of talking and see if that changes the way they think.
In our lab, we've taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors as in Greek to describe duration e. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think.
Beyond abstract or complex domains of thought like space and time, languages also meddle in basic aspects of visual perception — our ability to distinguish colors, for example. Different languages divide up the color continuum differently: some make many more distinctions between colors than others, and the boundaries often don't line up across languages.
To test whether differences in color language lead to differences in color perception, we compared Russian and English speakers' ability to discriminate shades of blue.
In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers call "blue. Does this distinction mean that siniy blues look more different from goluboy blues to Russian speakers? Indeed, the data say yes. Russian speakers are quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that are called by the different names in Russian i.
Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics. Does that mean we have an equal variety of essentially different ways of thinking? In both this talk and an essay for Edge. These include an Aboriginal tribe in Australia who always and everywhere use cardinal directions to describe space "Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg" and the differences in how languages label the color spectrum. They're faster to be able to tell the difference between a light and dark blue. It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. Personally, I'd like to see all the various ways artists speaking all the world's languages paint that waltzing jellyfish thinking about quantum mechanics in the library.
HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?