How does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?
By Lera Boroditsky

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. For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. 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.

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?

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Tags: cognition, evolution, language, mind, thinking

Views: 805

Replies to This Discussion

That was a very interesting article. A couple of things that I would point out as to how language affects the way we think.
1. Pronouns. English always capitalizes the word "I." French does not, while Spanish capitalizes the formal You (Vd.) and German capitalizes all nouns and pronouns. I wonder if a correlation exists between the self-centered nature of English.

2. German has four cases (nominative, genitive, accusative, dative) and Russian has six (the aforementioned plus Instrumental and prepositional), English has only retained the genitive or possessive case, signifying ownership (apostrophe s). It seems to hint at the important of ownership in English-speaking cultures. In contrast, Hebrew and Arabic do not have a word for "have." Instead you have to say the equivalent of There is to me. Again, it reflects a different perspective on ownership.

3. When I took Japanese in college, it bothered me to no end that there was absolutely no gender or number or article. Tsukue could mean table or tables. Anohito could mean him or her. A sentence like Tsukue no ue ni hon ga arimasu could mean there is a book on a table, the book is on the table, there are books on on tables, the books are on the table, the books are on a table, etc. Basically, you just know Table On Book Present-tense. Context is everything. On the other hand, the Japanese go crazy with honorifics, so the sentence often says more about your rank in relationship to the person you are speaking to than it does about the content.

Of course, all of these differences make it very different to translate texts accurately. It forces a cultural interpretation on the text that may not really be there. I always have a hard time explaining to people, "Yeah, it says that but not really."
Great observations and supplemental info. I had no idea Japanese was like that.
Thanks for letting me know it's already been posted. Next time I will check beforehand :)
No problem. It's so easy to do, considering how much info is out there. I'm a total infovore, but sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in it!
Ditto:) How do you keep from being too cerebral?

Maybe I am too cerebral. Maybe that's my problem. : /

You and me both :)

That point about capitalization point is wild, thanks for sharing. I wonder why it says you aren't a member anymore when I click on your profile?

That just means he left AN, but chose the option to retain all of his contributions in spite of the fact that he was leaving. You can leave and delete all your contributions as well.
Interesting article indeed. Thanks for sharing. Living in a relatively small Finno-Ugric language sphere surrounded by Indo-European language speaking countries from all sides, I've believed for a long time that language affects the way people think.

Some more examples in addition to Al-KADIM's post:
Gender specific versus unisex pronouns. Finnish and Estonian have the same word for "he" and "she". Basically it mean that one can talk about people without noticing their gender at all. All in all it may draw less attention to differencies between the sexes and lead to rather gender-neutral environment.

Both Estonian and Finnish are also examples of languages with many noun cases, having fourteen and fifteen cases respectively. Comparing those two closely related languages at least one thing that pops up is that Finnish has possessive noun suffix that Estonian lacks. This makes Estonians here feel like Finns are over-emphasizing ownership.

In both of those languages the difference between future and present is context only. The context is sometimes rather vague and that generates situations prone to misinterpretations. I'm not sure if and how it affects thinking though. Maybe something in lines of considering planning as good as doing. Just improvising...

The Finns have a possessive ase that Estonians don't - neat. Do you see other evidence that this might influence their outlook on life?


For instance, are they more inclined to be territorial? Do you notice more fences surrounding Finnish households? Are they stricter about knocking before entering a room? Are they less likely to lend out personal objects? Do they have remarkably different divorce laws in relation to property and custody of their children than Estonians, etc?

Hello Ms. Boroditsky,

In your article, "How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think?" you talk about how your students never mention language as a faculty they would least like to lose (the sense of sight is their most frequent reply). I thought I would just point out that maybe they respond that way because they think you are asking them which sense is most important to them. As you probably know, their are five traditional senses; sight, taste, touch, hearing, and scent. I bet you would get very different answers to your survey if you phrased the question differently. For instance, "Which is more important to you, your sense of sight, your ability to understand language, or some other faculty?"

It's a subtle difference, but it's potent, and I bet it will produce very different results :)

Andrew Mylko
Nursing Student
Eugene, OR


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