28 May 2012

Language and thought

Been a while since I wrote much here, so I suppose this had better be interesting!

I certainly find the subject matter fascinating, and was very happy not to have thrown away an edition of Scientific American from February 2011 (goodness how this magazine has shrunk since I used to buy it more regularly some 40 or so years ago!). Happy, because in this edition there is a great article entitled "How Language Shapes Thought", by Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Stamford University. 

I hereby give full credit for virtually all the ideas exposed in my article to the above lady, and to Scientific American who published the article. Here is a link to her website :
and a list of publications by her can be found at the end of this article

It would appear that various theories about the interactions between thought processes and language have been thrown to and from between experts over the years. I know little of this inner fighting, but Boroditsky refers to it in her article, speaking of a theory known as the Sapir-Whorf theory that proposed, in the 1930's, that speakers of different languages may well think in different ways. This was contested through lack of evidence, but Boroditsky puts forward a whole set of examples and experiments in favour of this theory that, to me at least, are very convincing.

Benjamin Whorf

As a bilingual (English/French), I have often noticed that I think in slightly different ways according to the language to which I am currently tuned. For example, in my professional life, I am pretty much unable to describe a wine in exactly the same way when I switch from French to English. The "other" language is to some extent a barrier, but it also opens up new channels and throught processes. So I found that this article by Lera Boroditsky struck more than a bell with me (and one couldn't quite say that in French!).

Boroditsky starts off with a striking example. She asked a five-year old girl from an Australian aboriginal tribe to point to the north, which she did instantly and with precision. She has asked the same question of distinguished audiences in university lecture rooms around the world, asking them to close their eyes first (i-phones have compasses!). Invariably some refuse to answer, fearing ridicule. The others point in all directions. How is it that a five-year-old can achieve with ease a cognitive exercise that learned professors cannot manage? And she suggests that the answer may well lie, at least partially, in the realm of language.

The language of the aboriginal australian girl is called Kuuk Thayoore, and it uses cardinal points to identify the relative position of all places and objects. For example, if we were to say "you lay a table with the knife to the right of the plate", Kuuk Thayoore speakers would say, depending on which direction they were facing, "you lay a table with the knife north of the plate". Hence, if they were facing the opposite direction, they would say "you lay a table with the knife south of the plate".

It would appear that people who think differently about space also think differently about time. In another experiment, Kuuk Thayoore speakers were given card sets with images that showed temporal progressions, such as a man ageing (a boy, a teenager, an adult, an old man). They were asked to arrange these in the correct temporal order. They were tested twice, each time facing in different cardinal directions. English speakers were also tested, and they systematically placed the images in an order reading from left to right, whereas Hebrew speakers did just the opposite, equally systematically. The Kuuk Thayoore speakers would arrange the images from left to right if they themselves were facing north, but from right to left if they were facing south. If the aboriginals faced east, the images came towards them, and so on.

We think of the past as being behind us, and the future as lying ahead of us. In Aymara, a language spoken in part of the Andes, the past is said to lie ahead and the future behind. Lynden Miles, of the University if Aberdeen, found that English spekers unconsciously sway their bodies slightly forwards when they think of the future, and backwards when they evoke the past. In Aymara, the body language matches the manner of talking and Aymara speakers move in the opposite directions to us.

Language structures can facilitate or impede learning processes. Number words in some languages use a base-10 structure more completely than is the case in English, where we have strange teen words like 11 or 13. Mandarin, for instance, has no such tricky number words and hence children being taught in mandarin are able to learn the base-10 principle much faster.

Gender marking, which can vary greatly from one language to another, can also have considerable influence on learning curves and thought processes. Human relationships, more or less linked to families, are also influenced by language. We are familier with the importance of family in Chinese culture. If, for instance, you were to say "I have just seen a representation of Uncle Vanya on 42nd street" in Mandarin, you would have to specify whether the uncle in question is paternal, maternal, as well as whether he is related by blood or by mariage, since there are different words for all these relationships. In Russian, the verb would reveal one's gender. In Piraha, an Amazonian language, one could not say 42nd, since there are no words for precise numbers, just words for "few" and "many". And so on. Now tell me that language has no influence on thought!

For those of you interesting in other works by the Belarus-born Boroditsky, here is the list published by Wikipedia

  • Boroditsky, L. (2003), "Linguistic relativity", in Nadel, L., Encyclopedia of cognitive science, London: Macmillan, pp. 917–922
  • Boroditsky, L.; Schmidt, L.; Phillips, W. (2003), "Sex, syntax, and semantics", in editors, multiple, Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 61–80
  • Boroditsky, L. & Ramscar, M. (2002). The roles of body and mind in abstract thought. Psychological Science, 13(2), 185–188.
  • Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought? English and Mandarin speakers' conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43(1), 1–22.
  • Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric Structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition, 75(1), 1–28.