“How Language Shapes Thought,” A Review

By February 17, 2011R is for Research

Does the language that we speak determine how we think, or even our perceptions of the world? According to Lera Boroditsky, an Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Stanford University, there is some strong evidence to suggest that it does.

She opens her article, “How Language Shapes Thought: The Languages We Speak Affect Our Perceptions of the World,” which appears in February’s issue of Scientific American,  with a humorous anecdote. She asks a five year old girl from Pormpuraaw (an Aboriginal community in northern Australia) to point north, which she does with ease (as confirmed by Boroditsky’s compass). She asks the same question to a group of scholars (she mentions that the crowd is made up of science and genius award recipients) and none of them can accomplish the task. She theorizes this is the result of the language that we speak. She writes, “Unlike the English, the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in Pormpuraaw does not use relative spatial terms such as left and right. Rather Kuuk Thaayorre speakers talk in absolute cardinal directs (north, south, east, and so forth). Of course, in English we also use cardinal directions terms, but only for large spatial scales” (Boroditsky 64).

It is interesting to think that as a direct result of the language that we speak, our basic skills and abilities will be impacted. Boroditsky points out that that are an estimated 7,000 unique languages being spoken today. Because these languages all include different details, and omit different information, translating messages between languages can be very complicated. She offers the following example, “For example, suppose I want to tell you that I saw Uncle Vanya on 42nd street. In Mian, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea, the verb I used would reveal whether the event happened just now, yesterday, or in the distant past whereas in Indonesian, the verb wouldn’t give away whether it had already happened or it was still coming up. In Russian, the verb would reveal my gender…And in Piraha, a language spoken in the Amazon, I couldn’t say “42nd,” because there are no words for exact numbers, just words for “few” and “many” (Boroditsky 64).

After reading this article, it is difficult to deny both the connection between language and thought, as well as the power of language. The language that we speak clearly places value on certain information, which can impact the skills that we have, and how we approach different situations. I would encourage everyone to take a look at Boroditsky’s article, and the fascinating connections that she makes between language and thought.



Join the discussion One Comment

  • Mia Amélie says:

    Thanks for sharing this Fiona. This is a topic that always fascinates me, and consequentially, there were aspects of Boroditsky’s article that I found new and wonderful and others that I feel need to be looked at very critically. Boroditsky seems to lend Whorf and Sapir, who first proposed this hypothesis without proof, a lot of credit. In reality, the ideas put forth by Whorf and Sapir were both revolutionary and medieval. They viewed our mother-tongues as not only influencing, but confining human thought, arguing that our minds are limited to the strict structures of our first language.

    Boroditsky seems to buy into this idea, if only part way: “There may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role.” She recognizes that we are not limited completely by our thoughts, but does not completely break out of the Whorf jail cell either. Why is this problematic? It allows for some languages to be considered more sophisticated than others, and, therefore, for some people to be more sophisticated than others. This, of course, is simply not true. Language is influential, but it is not as limiting as Broditsky (and Whorf/Sapir) appears to argue.

    My family, for example, may have to refer to a table as feminine- “la table”- but none of my French relatives believe that a table is a person with genitalia. Likewise, the Kuuk Thaayorre may be required in their language to always be cognizant of cardinal directions (awesome!), but it does not mean that they do not have a concept of which part of the body is a front or which is a back.