How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Cognitive Scientist Lera Boroditsky Explains

Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics. “If everything has gone relatively well in your life so far,” cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky says in the TED Talk above, “you probably haven’t had that thought before.” But now you have, all thanks to language, the remarkable ability by which “we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time” and “knowledge across minds.”

Though we occasionally hear about startling rates of language extinction — Boroditsky quotes some estimates as predicting half the world’s languages gone in the next century — a great variety still thrive. Does that mean we have an equal variety of essentially different ways of thinking? In both this talk and an essay for Edge.org, Boroditsky presents intriguing pieces of evidence that what language we speak does affect the way we conceive of the world and our ideas about it. These include an Aboriginal tribe in Australia who always and everywhere use cardinal directions to describe space (“Oh, there’s an ant on your southwest leg”) and the differences in how languages label the color spectrum.

“Russian speakers have to differentiate between light blue, goluboy, and dark blue, siniy,” says the Belarus-born, American-raised Boroditsky. “When we test people’s ability to perceptually discriminate these colors, what we find is that Russian speakers are faster across this linguistic boundary. They’re faster to be able to tell the difference between a light and dark blue.” Hardly a yawning cognitive gap, you might think, but just imagine how many such differences exist between languages, and how the habits of mind they shape potentially add up.

“You don’t even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery,” writes Boroditsky in her Edge essay. “How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language.” More Germans paint death as a man, and more Russians paint it as a woman. Personally, I’d like to see all the various ways artists speaking all the world’s languages paint that waltzing jellyfish thinking about quantum mechanics in the library. We’d better hurry commissioning them, though, before too many more of those languages vanish.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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