Boroditsky (2009). How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think? (What’s Next?: Dispatches on the Future of Science.)

Boroditsky, L. (2009). How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think? In M. Brockman (Ed.), What’s Next?: Dispatches on the Future of Science (pp. 117–129). New York: Vintage Books.

“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.” (p 118)

“Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish [page break] 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.” (p 119-120)

“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. … 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_.” (p 120)

“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 Ab- [page break] original groups, use cardinal-direction terms … ” (p 120-121)

“Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. … Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don’t end there. … Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, [page break] morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space.” (p 121-122)

“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.g., ‘The best is _ahead_ of us,’ ‘The worst is _behind_ us’), whereas Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time (e.g., the next month is the ‘down month’ and the last month is the ‘up month’).” (p 123)

“… English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length (e.g., ‘That was a _short_ talk,’ ‘The meeting didn’t take _long_’), while Spanish and Greek speakers prefer to talk about time in terms of amount, relying more on [page break] words like ‘much’ ‘big’, and ‘little’ rather than ‘short’ and ‘long’ …” (p 123-124)

“An important question at this point is: Are these differences caused by language per se or by some other aspect of culture?” (p 124)

“In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.” (p 125)

“Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way [page break] they choose professions and spouses.8” (p 128-129)

Selected Notes

  • 8
    • L. Boroditsky, “Linguistic Relativity,” in L. Nadel ed., Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (London: MacMillan, 2003), 917–21; …
    • A. Tversky & D. Kahneman, “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.” Science 211(1981): 453–58; …
    • J. G. de Villiers and P. A. de Villiers, “Linguistic Determinism and False Belief,” in P. Mitchell and K. Riggs, eds., Children’s Reasoning and the Mind (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, in press); …
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