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: 833

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.
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!

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

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...
Andrew, very likely it would produce different results. Framing or priming a question can illicit a desired or expected response.
Time? That's a good point Andrew. We don't often consider our awareness of time as being a faculty. However, of all the things that seem to go wrong with the human brain, I've never heard of any disorder in which a person is unaware of the passing of time. Perhaps that is a primordial gift inherent in all living things.

I sort of know who you are talking about, but not his name. The movie Memento was based on that problem.


But this seems to be a malfunction of memory, and not an UNAWARENESS of the passage of time. Certainly, time and memory are inextricably linked, but these people can't remember past events. They are not unaware that they are passing through time.

I guess sometimes our sense of time fluctuates, especially when time flies as we have fun, or drags when we aren't. So maybe being without a sense of time would feel something like those two extremes? 


Our sense of time does fluctuate. In fact, when we are under grave duress, like trying to escape a burning house, our brain actually fires faster, which means we are more perceptive and we capture more data. This has the effect of slowing time down. Instead of capturing something like 3 frames per second, we capture 6 frames per second (but I'm just making those numbers up). This means time appears to slow down for us.


It might be a neat experiment to be tucked away in a room without windows, and without any access to something that would tell us what time or day it was, and to see what would happen.


Been done, unfortunately. Genie was a thirteen year old girl whose parents chained her to a potty chair for her entire life. The affects on her mind were irreversible, and scans of her brain showed great atrophy.




I bet animals (other that humans) don't sense time like we do.


I think that's a very safe assumption.

No, it didn't have anything to do with a sense of self. That man had visual agnosia:


Visual agnosia is the inability of the brain to make sense of or make use of some part of otherwise normal visual stimulus and is typified by the inability to recognize familiar objects or faces. This is distinct from blindness, which is a lack of sensory input to the brain due to damage to the eye, optic nerve, or primary visual systems in the brain such as the optic radiations or primary visual cortex. Visual agnosia is often due to damage, such as stroke, in the posterior occipital and/or temporal lobe(s) in the brain.


And his case was made famous in the book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales is a 1985 book by neurologist Oliver Sacks describing the case histories of some of his patients. The title of the book comes from the case study of a man with visual agnosia.[1]

Yes, that documentary touches on Victor. I've visited that wiki page before, but I don't think I've ever taken the time to read all of it. However, all this reminded me of the movie about him, so I've requested it from the library. (Wild Child, by Truffaut)


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