How the Languages We Speak Shape the Way We Think

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 23 May 2018

Language is more than a way to express thoughts and feelings – it’s way of looking at the world, and may be what shapes the way we think.

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky Photo: Wiki commons


Cognitive scientist Dr Lera Boroditsky grew up in the former Soviet Union, speaking Russian, and moved with her family to the United States.

”Switching contexts, having to move as a child from one country to another, reveals to you people can believe really different things and see the world very differently.”

And language turns out to be one of the contributing factors, Boroditsky says.

Languages require very different kinds of information from their speakers, she says, and even translating a very simple verb is going to create all kinds of problems and differences across languages.

English speakers are used to changing a verb to indicate the tense – whether something is happened in the past, present or future – while Indonesian doesn’t.

Speakers of other languages have to be more precise – one spoken in Papua New Guinea has five past tenses, to describe how long ago the event occurred.

In Turkish you have to change the verb according to how you know the information – distinguishing whether you witnessed something or heard about it from someone else.

Boroditsky says language can change the way we think about something as fundamental as direction.

English and many other languages use ‘left’ and ‘right’ to indicate direction.

But others around the world use a different description, such as the Aboriginal language Kuuk Thaayorre, spoken by people who live in Pormpuraaw at the very west edge of Cape York.

They use words that are basically ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’, ‘west’ – the cardinal directions, Boroditsky says.

So if they want to say something about their body they might say “there’s an ant on my northwest leg”.

“Of course if you move your leg, immediately it’s no longer your northwest leg … so people who speak languages like this have to stay oriented just in order to be able to speak their language grammatically.

“Even very young kids – five year olds - can point south-east for you without hesitation. If I ask a room full of distinguished professors here in the West to do it they’ll point in every possible direction. It’s a really big difference in cognitive ability across the two groups.”

People who have their attention trained in this way can find their direction and navigate better than we used to think humans could, Boroditsky says.

“The human mind is perfectly capable of accomplishing these feats of navigation if you just exist in a culture and a linguistic practice that requires you to pay attention and stay oriented.”

English and other languages refer to time as ‘length’, while others think about in terms of amount or size; in Greek, for example, a ‘big concert’ means a long concert.

Experiments in which people were taught a different set of metaphors for time revealed the changes went deeper than words.

“Learning a new way of talking actually creates new ways of thinking,” Boroditsky says – it creates new associations in your mind.

“Languages contain in them a huge amount of cultural knowledge – so it’s thousands and thousands of generations of people before you who noticed things, learned interesting things and built those into the structures of the language.

“It creates a whole world view and a guide book to how to see the world."

It’s important to protect any existing human language, she says.  

“There’s an analogy that some linguists use, they say that whenever a language dies, the amount of cultural loss is the equivalent to a bomb being dropped on the Louvre and all of that art work disappearing.

“In case of languages that aren’t well documented, the loss is completely irretrievable.”

Dr Lera Boroditsky Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California-San Diego  is the author of '7000 Universes: How the Languages We Speak Shape the Way We Think'.

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