Language and cognition

NEWSWEEK reports:

[Stanford University psychologist] Lera Boroditsky… has long been intrigued by an age-old question whose modern form dates to 1956, when linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf asked whether the language we speak shapes the way we think and see the world. If so, then language is not merely a means of expressing thought, but a constraint on it, too…

…In a series of clever experiments guided by pointed questions, [Boroditsky] is amassing evidence that, yes, language shapes thought. The effect is powerful enough, she says, that “the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically,” not only when they are thinking in order to speak, “but in all manner of cognitive tasks,” including basic sensory perception. “Even a small fluke of grammar”—the gender of nouns—”can have an effect on how people think about things in the world,” she says.

Language even shapes what we see. People have a better memory for colors if different shades have distinct names—not English’s light blue and dark blue, for instance, but Russian’s goluboy and sinly. Skeptics of the language-shapes-thought claim have argued that that’s a trivial finding, showing only that people remember what they saw in both a visual form and a verbal one, but not proving that they actually see the hues differently. In an ingenious experiment, however, Boroditsky and colleagues showed volunteers three color swatches and asked them which of the bottom two was the same as the top one. Native Russian speakers were faster than English speakers when the colors had distinct names, suggesting that having a name for something allows you to perceive it more sharply. Similarly, Korean uses one word for “in” when one object is in another snugly (a letter in an envelope), and a different one when an object is in something loosely (an apple in a bowl). Sure enough, Korean adults are better than English speakers at distinguishing tight fit from loose fit.

Boroditsky’s Web site is here.  If you’d like to learn more about linguistic relativity, this paper (PDF) might be a good starting point.

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