Lera Boroditsky: Language informs how we think about the world Languages are complex and our words are powerful. Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky discusses how even small variations in language may mean big distinctions in how we experience the world.

Does language shape how we think?

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On the show today, how the little things in life can make a big difference, like the words we use to express ourselves every day. Our next guest studies how small variations in language may mean big distinctions in how we experience the world. And to demonstrate, let's play a little game. Close your eyes.

LERA BORODITSKY: Yes. Well, so if you're driving, don't close your eyes. But if you're not driving or operating another kind of motor vehicle, close your eyes and point southeast.

ZOMORODI: Southeast. OK.


ZOMORODI: I'm pointing. OK.

BORODITSKY: So if you do this in any kind of normal room full of Westerners...


BORODITSKY: I want you all to close your eyes and point southeast. No, keep your eyes closed. Point.

And then you have people open their eyes. They will immediately see that they have pointed in every possible direction.


BORODITSKY: I see you guys pointing there, there, there, there, there. I don't know which way it is myself.


BORODITSKY: You have not been a lot of help.

And I do this to point out that there can be really big cognitive differences between groups of people. And I've had a chance to work in an Aboriginal community in Australia where they could do this task very easily. I could ask a 5-year-old girl, hey. Can you point southeast? And she would point immediately and without hesitation. And, you know, that's a big difference, compared to, say, a room full of distinguished scientists, who all point in different directions.

ZOMORODI: This is cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky.

BORODITSKY: And I study how humans get so smart, how the languages and cultures that we have help us think the way that we do.

ZOMORODI: So, Lera, it may not seem obvious to some of us, but what do you think this exercise of pointing southeast says about how language influences the brain?

BORODITSKY: Well, our languages and cultures teach us to pay attention to certain things and not to other things. There's basically an infinite set of things that we could possibly take in, process. But our brains can't process all the information, can't take in all the information. So we have to make some choices. And one of the ways that we make those choices are by the things that our languages and cultures require of us. So in this Aboriginal community in Australia that I mentioned, they - instead of using words like left and right to give directions or to talk about the body, they use cardinal directions - more or less north, south, east and west. And they use these directions at all scales. So for example, in some languages like in Guugu Yimithirr, you would even say, there's an ant on your southwest leg. You would say, you know, move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit. In Kuuk Thaayorre, this language that I had a chance to work on, the way you even say hello is, which way are you going? And the answer should be something like north-northwest in the far distance. How about you?


BORODITSKY: So imagine as you're walking around your day, every person you greet, you have to report your heading direction.

ZOMORODI: Here's Lera Boroditsky on the TED stage.


BORODITSKY: That would actually get you oriented pretty fast - right? - because you literally couldn't get past hello if you didn't know which way you were going. In fact, people who speak languages like this stay oriented really, really well. They stay oriented better than we used to think humans could. We used to think that humans were worse than other creatures because some biological excuse - oh, we don't have magnets in our beaks or in our scales. No. If your language and your culture trains you to do it, actually, you can do it.


BORODITSKY: So for me, whenever I come across an example like this, the biggest lesson for me is to not underestimate the potential of the human mind, not just to say that the things that I can do or the things that I can imagine - that those are the limits. Language allows us to recombine elements in infinite new ways and create new ideas on the spot. So right now, I could, say, imagine a giraffe riverdancing on a pancake...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BORODITSKY: ...While solving differential equations, right? You've never had that thought before?


BORODITSKY: No. I'm glad it happened (ph) today. Maybe it's not the most useful thought, but there are so many other thoughts like that that people throughout history have had. And all of a sudden, we have interesting ideas about time travel that make us engage with the future in different ways. So this ability to think beyond what is physically present and imagine and work in the realm of the abstract is one of the things that language opens the door to.

ZOMORODI: You are really the latest in a long, centurieslong line of people who have been asking this question. Does language shape the way we think? Why has this been such a debated topic? Because when I - you know, I remember the first time thinking about it. I just assumed it did. But actually, this is not something that anyone agrees on how it works.

BORODITSKY: Well, I think often, we disagree with ourselves about it, right? I think all of us have both intuitions. And so the idea that language shapes thought is very similar to the idea that physical exercises changes the way that your body looks and acts, right? When you speak a language, you're practicing paying attention. You're practicing categorizing something every day, constantly. And so it would be, in fact, the most surprising thing that the thing that you do all day, every day, this practice of speaking language, would have no influence on your brain. And for me as a scientist, what's interesting is to figure out, what are the times that language shapes thought meaningfully? And what are the times that it doesn't? And so I think one of the reasons that this idea has gotten new life in the last 20 or 30 years is because we started using experimental methods, like, real scientific experimental methods, rather than just arguing back and forth about our intuitions.

ZOMORODI: One of your critics, John McWhorter, the linguist - he said, well, the gradual consensus is becoming that language can shape thought, but it tends to be in rather darling, obscure psychological flutters. It's not a matter of giving you a different pair of glasses on the world. Is this a small discovery that you're making? Or would you beg to differ?

BORODITSKY: Obviously, I would beg to differ because, you know, there are many different ways you could ask how deep, big, important differences are. And there are studies that reveal really big, interesting differences of different kinds. So, for example, if we look at color perception, different languages have different words for colors, put color boundaries in different places. We can find that language influences even these tiny perceptual decisions that are so early on and so kind of stupid. You know, like a pigeon could make these decisions. And yet somehow, even in these smart human brains, language is making a difference in how you tell the difference between two patches of blue, for example. Now, that tells us that language can have an extremely early influence in cognition. And if it can influence something very early, that means it's influencing all of the other things downstream.


BORODITSKY: Languages also differ in how they describe events, right? So you take an event like this, an accident - in English, it's fine to say, he broke the vase. In a language like Spanish, you might be more likely to say, the vase broke, or, the vase broke itself. If it's an accident, you wouldn't say that someone did it. Now, this has consequences. So you show the same accident to English speakers and Spanish speakers - English speakers will remember who did it because English requires you to say, he did it; he broke the vase; where Spanish speakers might be less likely to remember who did it if it's an accident. But they're more likely to remember that it was an accident.

They're more likely to remember the intention. So two people watch the same event, witness the same crime, but end up remembering different things about that event. This has implications, of course, for eyewitness testimony. The language guides our reasoning about it.


ZOMORODI: So another example that's coming to mind for me - and tell me if this fits - it's the use of gendered pronouns in the US. So one of my daughter's friends uses nonbinary pronouns - they/them. And my daughter and I were talking to my mother about this friend. And my mother was getting so confused every time we referred to them because she thought we were referring to multiple people. And it made me think, like, does this come down to a generational thing - the way we change the way that we use language, the way we think about the gendered sex of someone? That is changing. Does this example fit into what you're talking about?

BORODITSKY: Absolutely. Yeah. It's a wonderful example. And it's another wonderful example of how whatever it is that we're used to seems to be the way that things naturally should be. So, for example, in English, we mark gender on third-person singular pronouns - so he, she, his, her. We don't mark gender on first-person pronouns. We only have I. We don't mark gender on second-person pronouns. We only have you. So, in fact, most of English pronouns are gender neutral. It's just in the third-person singular that we mark gender.

But proposing that there could be a new pronoun or proposing that we could not mark gender on those pronouns causes some people incredible pain, and they will argue nothing will be understandable if we don't have gender. But there are languages that mark gender on first-person pronouns or at second-person pronouns or on plural pronouns. Some languages don't mark gender at all, right? Like...


BORODITSKY: ...Taking Finnish as an example - there are no gendered third-person pronouns in Finnish. And in experiments looking at, for example, Hebrew-learning kids, English-learning kids and Finnish-learning kids, it turns out that kids learning Hebrew as their first language figure out whether they themselves are a boy or a girl earlier. In Hebrew, even the second-person pronoun is gendered, so the word for you is gendered. English is somewhere in between. And then Finnish kids take about a year - an extra year - before they can reliably classify themselves with boys or girls. And so that's an indication of language forcing you to pay attention to some dimension that you may want to think about in a different way.


ZOMORODI: And so what may seem like a very small difference to one person might seem a really big deal to someone else.

BORODITSKY: Of course. If it applies to you, it's going to be a lot more important. And you may feel like the language that you're being forced to speak is constantly forcing you into one category or another that doesn't fit. And that has always been the way language change comes about. People feel like the current language that they're speaking doesn't fit their thinking, doesn't fit the way that they want to be in the world. And so they start trying to change the language and inviting other people to also think in this new way and thinking in new ways is painful.

ZOMORODI: So what would you say the goal, then, is of your research? I mean, why should someone just listening to this show know this? What do you think it does for them?

BORODITSKY: Oh, well, I think whenever you're looking at another culture, another language, the most important thing you could learn is about yourself in your own language, in your own culture, right? So take the mirror and turn it on yourself and say, why do I think the way that I do? Why would I be surprised that someone thinks differently?

Like, I have been practicing speaking in this way, thinking in this way my whole life. And often we assume that whatever it is that we're used to is the way that things have to be. But, actually, we have many more options. And so, for me, it is always an invitation to, one, examine the assumptions that I have, and why is it that I think the way that I do. How could I think differently? How do I want to think? And then you can learn a lot, and you can expand your own thinking.


ZOMORODI: That's Lera Boroditsky. She's a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, small but mighty. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. We'll be right back.

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