How Language Seems To Shape One’s View Of The World
by Alan Yu
January 02, 2014
Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast.
A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.
She says the difference lies in language. Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, says the Australian aboriginal language doesn’t use words like left or right.
It uses compass points, so they say things like “that girl to the east of you is my sister.”
If you want to learn another language and become fluent, you may have to change the way you behave in small but sometimes significant ways, specifically how you sort things into categories and what you notice.
Researchers are starting to study how those changes happen, says Aneta Pavlenko, a professor of applied linguistics at Temple University. She studies bilingualism and is the author of an upcoming book on this work.
John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, acknowledges such differences but says they don’t really matter.
The experiments “show that there are these tiny differentials that you can find that seem to correlate with what language you speak,” McWhorter says. “Nothing has ever demonstrated that your language makes you process life in a different way. It just doesn’t work.”
He calls this “the language hoax,” which happens to be the title of his upcoming book.
Like studying to be a pilot or doctor, she says, learning to speak a different language fluently can also change us, and this means we can learn those changes, like learning any other skill.
“It’s like a very extensive training program,” Boroditsky says. “There’s nothing exotic about the effects that language has on cognition. It’s just the same that any learning has on cognition.”