The hidden power of language

30 Jun

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

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…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

I am storing a copy for future reference: Edge_ HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE pdf.


7 responses to “The hidden power of language

  1. Kevin

    July 2, 2009 at 4:20 am

    I didn’t know that you were a teacher. Grats!

  2. Neil

    July 2, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Thanks, Kevin, but you must have missed the About page. 😉 “I was a teacher for just on forty years but am now retired, aside from some casual work and/or coaching. I was until recently a teacher of English as a second language, and my English and ESL blog reflects this interest.”

  3. tikno

    July 4, 2009 at 6:50 am

    Since English is my second language, feels I’m writing in English according Indonesia taste. When I talk to people whose native language is English, sometimes they difficult to understand of what I say. So, I have to write it on a paper, ha..ha…

    Neil, how is my English? Really want to know from you. Thank you.

  4. Neil

    July 4, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Your English is far better than my Indonesian ever was, but I am afraid I just swam the shallow end of the pool in that; the first school I taught at offered Indonesian as a foreign language — quite new in 1966-1969!

    Have you visited my English/ESL site?

    OK, your English is communicative: you make yourself easily understood, but (understandably) some of the finer points of grammar and usage are less good. It is better though to just go for it and write/speak without worrying too much about errors. If you keep practising and also look at some good information about English the errors will become fewer.

    I would write your comment like this:

    Since English is my second language, I feel I’m writing in English according to Indonesian taste. When I talk to people whose native language is English, sometimes they have difficulty understanding what I say. So, I have to write it on paper, ha..ha…

    Neil, how is my English? Really want to know from you. Thank you.

  5. tikno

    July 4, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Thank you, Neil. Now I see its error.

    I had experiences with a customer from Australia who was greet me like this: “Howdy?”.
    At that time I thought (my interpretation) he says “How die”. Later, I ask my friend whose English better than me about that. My friend said: “That is an English slang for just to say greetings, like hello, hi”

    I just visited the “English / ESL” and found your blog (English/ESL) was listed at “the Top 100 language blogs 2008”, and I bookmarks it already. Congratulation!

    I should learn more from you my teacher.

  6. Kevin

    July 5, 2009 at 3:26 am

    I always wondered why people who speak English as a first language were so much smarter than everyone else. Thanks, Lera Bodinsky!

    (hehe, just kidding… or am I? Yes, I am. Maybe.)

  7. Neil

    July 5, 2009 at 9:05 am

    If only that were true, Kevin — note my old-fashioned subjunctive there — being an English teacher would have been even easier! Happy 4 July.

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