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…


Posted by on June 30, 2009 in challenge, English language, for teachers


4 responses to “The hidden power of language

  1. alexcase

    June 30, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Fascinating conclusion, but she talks about research in labs but gives very little information on that and instead launches into the same arguments we have been hearing for years. Interesting, but disappointing

    TEFLtastic blog-

  2. paulmaglione

    June 30, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Very interesting subject. I’d be fascinated to see if anyone has investigated, for example, whether regional dialects which are “slower” than standard forms of the language — think a leisurely Southern U.S. drawl or the the easygoing Roman accent compared to mainstream Italian — mean that the speakers and listeners of those dialects process information any slower than do the speakers / listeners of the mainstream versions. This could have repercussions in other areas: at school, children who talk slowly are sometimes considered less intelligent — “slower” — than those who speak rapidly; whereas this may be purely a family or regional influence with no influence whatsoever on intelligence or capabilities.

  3. Neil

    June 30, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    @alexcase: Your blog looks interesting. I see what you mean about the article being disappointing, but do find its many examples fascinating.

    @paulmaglione: Haven’t there been a number of sociolinguistic studies on dialects and education? There are some listed here and even more here, though that quick search hasn’t thrown up much post-dating my own UTS Grad Cert TESOL in 1998! There must be more recent stuff.

  4. Meylysa

    March 12, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Boroditsky is one of my heroes!

    Ok…more enthusiasm…I love her work!

    If you read her complete papers…you’ll understand =) If you want to learn more, read her papers here:


    ESL Teacher


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