Last night I attended Lera Boroditsky's seminar talk on How Language Shapes Thought.
I learned that there is no question that exposure to a variety of languages changes how we think and perceive the world. For example, the Hebrew language is more gender oriented than English and Finnish not at all. When young children were tested to see how old they were when they discerned they were male or female, children who spoke Hebrew were the youngest to discern the difference, next, English speaking children and finally Finnish children. The children were shown photos of boys and girls that had been separated into two piles, boys and girls. Then a photo was taken of the child and they were asked to place their photo in the appropriate pile.
Why is understanding how language is perceived useful? Advertisers use it as do politicians. Prunes have a certain linguistic negativity so when their advertising name was changed to dried plums, sales went up and yet some people still want prunes, so when you go to the store, the same product sits on the shelf with two different names.
At one point, we were asked to close our eyes and point southwest. There was quite a range of response and it appeared none of us knew directly what direction we were facing. If we were part of the Kuuk Thaayorre tribe in Australia, direction would be included with each hello. We would also be able to point to where we are from.
Here is Steward Brand's summary of the Boroditsky talk that is sponsored through the LongNow Foundation.
"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.