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

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Replies to This Discussion

Andrew, very likely it would produce different results. Framing or priming a question can illicit a desired or expected response.

Yeah, it's kind of funny that she didn't notice that in the way she framed her question. I mean, I would bet she's a brilliant person, but did she not realize that she might be leading with her question? Then again, maybe she qualifies her question in class with comments like, "You can pick any faculty you want, it doesn't just have to be sight, touch, sense..." If that were the case, then it's still kinda/sorta like leading because I think most people don't immediately think of language as a "faculty", plus, most of us are familiar with the concept of our five senses, so when presented with an unfamiliar question it's no surprise to me that we default with an answer to a concept we are more familiar with :)


Besides that, I wonder what other funky faculties there are besides "language". I mean. What about the faculty of "time". That seems like a cool one to me. I wonder what it would be like to have no sense of time? And what other "senses" or "faculties" are we unaware of that would radically alter our world?


Ahhh.... so much fun to be so heady :) Hee hee.


In any case, I look forward to hearing back from her. I hope she responds to my email!

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.

Yeah. Time is a big one. It harks mortality. That's a big deal for the living :)


The nearest thing I can think of in regards to a deficit of a sense of time is amnesia. There are some fascinating cases of amnesia out there. One famous one is that man who woke up everyday with no memory before a certain day in his youth. I can't recall his name. He was studied for many years by many scientists. I have read only very little about him. Do you know who I'm talking about?

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.

Yeah. Amnesia isn't really a loss of a sense of time. All I can see when trying to imagine being without a sense of time is that everything would happen all at once. All our birthdays would be happening at the same time. We would be eating, sleeping, working, making love... all at once. Every emotion we ever had would be immediate. We would be both happy and sad. We would be calm and excited.


Hmmm.... What do you see?

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? 


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. Only problem is that being tucked away anywhere would likely make someone upset somehow. So the trick would be to keep someone happily healthy while they lose a sense of time. 


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


I remember once, a man told me that when he hikes out in the woods that he loses sense of time. He certainly must have lost that dreaded sense of time associated with paying bills, being on-time to work, and not missing his favorite TV show or something - but he still noticed morning from night and he could keep track of how long he was walking, even if only in a qualitative sense.

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.

Ooh, here's another funky one: sense of self. I actually remember hearing in psych class about a guy who didn't half a sense of self in terms of physical boundaries, and he thought his wife was a hat rack or something like that. 


But what if a "sense of self" had to do, not with physical boundaries, but with identity? What if we could somehow lose the sense of who we are, what we believe, and how we define ourselves. That might be interesting.

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]

That's the one, grazie!


Yes, Genie is a sad case. I was thinking more about isolation without traumatization, if that's at all possible.


If feral upbringing is a topic of interest then Victor of Aveyron might be worth your while:


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