This Just In: Language Shapes the Way We Think

This Just In: Language Shapes the Way We Think

Language indeed shapes the way we think, says Lera Boroditsky’s article in the Wall Street Journal. For anyone with any common sense (or language training), this shouldn’t be especially surprising, but it is an interesting read nonetheless, exploring how the latest cognitive research demonstrates testable differences in cognition between those who speak different languages—differences that influence the way people perceive the world. A few observations from the article:

Some findings on how language can affect thinking.

  • Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
  • Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
  • The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
  • In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn’t remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: “The vase broke itself,” rather than “John broke the vase.”

Perhaps more interesting is that multilingual folks seem to see the world differently depending on the language in which they’re thinking—so learning more than one language gives a broader perspective on the world than only knowing one. This coheres well with what my old professor Svetla Slaveva-Griffin (herself remarkably multilingual) said at the beginning of her first semester Greek course, a statement I have found quite true in my own experience: languages are not just words, and to learn a new language is to learn a whole new way of looking at the world, to immerse oneself in a different way of thinking. Boroditsky explains:

One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. …

All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

This is why on some level nothing is ever “just semantics,” and it is why I often choose to be fussy about how I and others say things (and why I so often encourage people to take other languages). How we say what we say says a great deal about how (and what) we are thinking—and (more importantly) even influences what we (and others) are thinking. Language is powerful, and it is important that we’re cognizant of its power.

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