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Filmed on Tuesday October 26, 02010

Lera Boroditsky

How Language Shapes Thought

Boroditsky is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She has received a NSF CAREER award, was named a Searle Scholar, and a McDonnell Scholar.

Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? For example, how do we think about time? The word "time" is the most frequent noun in the English language. Time is ubiquitous yet ephemeral. It forms the very fabric of our experience, and yet it is unperceivable: we cannot see, touch, or smell time. How do our minds create this fundamental aspect of experience? Do patterns in language and culture influence how we think about time?

Do languages merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express? Can learning new ways to talk change how you think? Is there intrinsic value in human linguistic diversity? Join us as Stanford cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky re-invigorates this long standing debate with data from experiments done around the world, from China, to Indonesia, Israel, and Aboriginal Australia.

Languages are Parallel Universes

"To have a second language is to have a second soul," said Charlemagne around 800 AD. "Each language has its own cognitive toolkit," said psychologist/linguist Lera Boroditsky in 2010 AD.

Different languages handle verbs, distinctions, gender, time, space, metaphor, and agency differently, and those differences, her research shows, make people think and act differently.

Take a sentence such as "Sarah Palin read Chomsky's latest book." In Russian, the verb would have to indicate whether the whole book was read or not. In Turkish the verb would signify whether the speaker saw the event personally, or it was reported, or it was inferred. Russians have two words for blue, and when those words are present in their mind, they can distinguish finer gradations of the color than English speakers can.

Gender runs deep in some languages, affecting nouns (including number words and days of the week), adjective endings, pronouns and possessives, and verb endings. And that affects how people think about every named thing. In German the Sun is female and the Moon male; it's the reverse in Spanish. In French, "liberty" and "justice" are each female, and thus the Statue of Liberty is a female, and so is the blindfolded lady of justice in American courtrooms.

"'Time' is the most common noun in the English language," said Boroditsky. (Followed by "person," "year," "way," and "day.") Time is often expressed as travel in space: "We're coming up on Christmas." But some languages put the future in front of us, and others put it behind us. For Aborigines that Boroditsky studied in north Australia, time and sequence gets blended into their profound orientation to the cardinal directions. They don't use relative terms like "left" and "right," but absolute compass terms ("There's an ant on your southwest leg"), and they have extraordinary orientation skills.

When Boroditsky asked these aborigines to place a sequence of photos (a progressively eaten apple) in sequential order, they did not do it like English speakers (left to right) or Hebrew and Arabic speakers (right to left), they did it by the compass: from east to west. "These are not differences of degree," said Boroditsky, "but a parallel universe."

Different languages assign blame (agency) differently. English is uncommonly agentive, and so Dick Cheney had difficulty distancing himself from the fact that he shot his friend in a hunting accident: "Ultimately I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the shot that hit Harry." In Spanish, accidents are expressed in terms such as "The vase broke" rather than "John broke the vase." Political distancing language such as "Mistakes were made" doesn't sound awkward in Spanish. Fate looms larger.

Thus, "learning new languages can change the way you think," said Boroditsky. Multilingual speakers have more mind.

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