Aboriginal people in Australia are better at finding their way around because they use compass directions instead of simply describing things as to the left or right. That’s just one of several findings from Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky, who claims language greatly influences our thoughts and perceptions. It’s a radical departure from modern linguistic theory.

Boroditsky joins us as part of our First Person series, featuring the leaders, innovators and other compelling characters that make the Bay Area unique.

First Person: Lera Boroditsky 2 February,2012forum

Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University

  • Ms Boroditsky’s thesis seems obvious to me,  I didn’t know it was in conflict with Chomsky.  Can you clarify the distinction?

  • Doug F

    German is rather intermediate–it says “I broke myself the arm.” 

    I think ability to tell direction is more cultural than linguistic.  Aborigines have to be able to tell direction in trackless flat desert, or they can’t find a waterhole and die.  Just within English, I was born in Wyoming, where everyone can tell direction.  If you’re out in the vast outdoors and can’t, you get lost.  The person I knew with the worst sense of direction grew up in the grid pattern of Manhattan, and never traveled enough to even see the Statue of Liberty. 

  • John Kaucher

    I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and it is amazing to hear you discuss how language influences people thoughts.  Even though Ukrainian doesn’t really have a passive voice, I feel like people discuss events as happening to them, as if they have little or no influence over them.  Thank you for your work.

  • Mark

    This is a great segment. Between my wife and I, we speak a dozen languages fluently. While still young, I was wondering about age distinctions. How does language acquirement change cognitive brain structures with age?

  • Carol

    Has Dr Boroditsky studied, or does she have an opinion, regarding the differences in language among same-language speakers as related to class. Presumably, the UK would have distinctive differences, but of course also the US and other places. Is there a difference between speakers of, say, upper class British English who were born to that style as opposed to Brit English speakers whose language style changed as a result of education or proximity? I would assume that the psychology of the speaker is affected by the class of language they are required to speak. For instance, also in Bali, where I believe the level of subservience in a class requires people to speak quite differently. Thank you.

  • Noah

    I’m reminded of Mclelland’s book The Achieving Society, in which he touches briefly on his findings that speaking like an achiever could actually make struggling entrepreneurs more successful. This was shown in his work in India in the 60’s, but I think such a theory has real relevance now.

    Is our defeatist, sensationalist outlook keeping us down? All the talk of recessions and wars and unemployment, how could it not be bogging us down? Is simply talking about successes enough to make us more successful?

  • Doug F

    English has about 700k root words (OED) and German about 200k (unabridged Duden).  I’ve found, while teaching English to Germans, that Germans simply don’t make many mental distinctions that English speakers do, because their simple language doesn’t let them.  E.g. that between “safety” and “security” (both “Sicherneit” in German).  I’ve run into 100s of other examples. 

  • Karo

    I love the show, I’m very surprised though that the idea that our experiences shape our language is so revolutionary. If you look at writers (Helene Cixous and others), they intentionally mix 2 or more languages that express different ideas or feelings. 

    On a personal note, it’s easier for me to express myself in English than in my native language. My feelings just flow out of me! 🙂 I also find the sound of the English language beautiful, and I feel pure enjoyment when I speak it or write in it. 

  • Anders

    What a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion.  Listening to your conversation, I keep thinking of George Orwell’s description in “1984” of the fictional government’s efforts to reshape language in order to make it impossible for people to express “reactionary” thoughts.  Has Ms. Boroditsky studied any real-world deliberate attempts to shape thoughts through language?  I know that some reforms of the Russian language were carried out after the 1917 revolution, but to what extent was that a deliberate attempt to shape thought according to Marxist ideals?

    • Cédric Warny

      Rather than what a language allows its speakers to think (as in Orwell’s 1984), the influence of language over thought has to be sought in what a language accustoms its speakers to think, due to its grammar rules. Grammar is the set of rules laying out what must be expressed in a language. Language is not a prison preventing us from seeing or thinking about some things. It is merely a lens. However, a lens can have an influence on one’s thoughts.

  • Paola

     a way to illustrate how language teaches culture can be seen in this two statements: in English you say: I missed the bus… in Spanish you say: ‘el bus me dejo {accent on the O}: (the bus left me).  This simple comparison is very illustrative, I believe, into how latin culture is different from anglo-saxon culture/ protestant culture.   

    • Bob Fry

      Very good point. Or for instance, in English it’s “I dropped it”, in Spanish, “se me cayo” (it dropped from me).

      But I don’t believe the language–at least this example–causes culture. You’re implying the latin culture dodges personal responsibility. Historical influences can far outweigh mere language. Mexico has a thousand-year history of the many crushed by the few, and this has to have much more influence.

  • Elizwmuller

    I’ve often wondered why parents call their children “Mami” and “Papi” in the Spanish language. What would explain this role reversal? Is it to teach the children the parent’s title by using it more frequently?

    • Bob Fry

      Eh? It’s just the same as English-speaking parents using Mom and Dad…as you say, to teach the proper title to the kids.

      • Elizwmuller

        No, I mean that the parents are essentially calling their CHILDREN “Mom” and “Dad.” The parked call the KIDS “Mami” and “Papi.” I’m not familiar with that usage in English.

        • Melissa

          It’s just a term of endearment. I sometimes hear white American families do a similar thing. For example, the mother of the family calling the father “Dad.” He is her children’s dad, not hers, but there it is. 

          • Elizwmuller

            Thank you so much for the replies. I understa that it’s a term of endearment, I’m just curious as to why the parents’ titles are chosen. I’m wondering it’s origin. And I believe it’s for a different reason than when a parent refers to another parent as “Mom” or “Dad.” That, I believe is not to be endearing but to reinforce the role of the parent and more for clarity’s sake–calling someone Mom because that’s what the listener calls her.

    • juanito

      To use “mommy” and “poppy” in spanish, for small children, is a sign of affection.  A poor equivalent in english is to call someone “honey, baby, sweetie, etc.” As young adults the spanish (mainly mexican) speakers will use the same words when courting someone they are serious about.  As older married couples who happen to stay married and in love they will use these words as true affection.  Hope this is helpful.  (BTW, my mother is mexican and I was raised between countries.)

  • Melissa

    Taxes: A dreaded word in the United States. I was recently in Mexico where we went to the local county office to pay my grandparents’ property taxes or, rather, their “contribucion” (contribution). How much would the tax debate in this country change if we spoke in terms of contributions instead of taxes? 

  • Joseph R Collins

    I am loving this discussion! I have two questions, both of a personal interest:
    1) As a speaker of Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian, where do you see the distinguishing feature between “language” and “dialect” in regards to the way people think? I suppose I’m getting at whether or not all these three peoples languages are the same, or if slight nuances show nuances in cultural differences.
    2) Have you done any studies of North American languages, and I’m wondering if you feel that there has been any cultural loss as Americans brought over European (and now Asian, etc.) languages to replace the Native tongues of this continent.

  • CanadianBorn

    Have you done any studies with the Asian languages? I missed a large part of the program so apologies if you’ve already covered this. I am actually refusing to teach my son Chinese (to the chagrin) of both relatives and Chinese strangers because I feel that the language inadequately expresses positive emotions and experiences.

    • Jay

      What you said may be true but using a language well is a very crafty undertaking. I haven’t written much in Chinese for many years, and last time I did, all the words I put down looked dull not that I had forgotten how to write in Chinese but rather I wasn’t giving my best effort. Sometimes I also tend to think that English allows me to express myself better in writing. But then I have to remind me that there are many great and powerful Chinese poetry and literary work that are nothing but expressive and moving. Do you speak Chinese yourself? I still love to read out loud a Chinese ancient poem or two occasionally, which has its own way of letting me experience a kind of emotion, though not necessarily positive from every poem.

    • James

      I am often surprised when I meet parents who refuse to teach their children their heritage language — especially in the face of no political oppression to do so. I’ve heard all sorts of reasons why they do this, but none of them hold, and certainly not yours either. Has it occurred to you that your perception of Chinese has been influenced by limited experience with the language and culture? You may be fluent in the language, but the language goes beyond your association of it with kin and known community. When European powers were carving up China for Imperialist objectives over a hundred years ago, many Westerners believed that China was backwards partly because of its language, that it could not express scientific and technological concepts as understood in the West. That has largely been proven untrue. In fact, due to the construction of new words based on its own building blocks of meaning, scientific writing reads more straightforward in Chinese than it does in English. Likewise, contrary to your view, Chinese can be adequate in the expression of positive emotions and experiences. Most Chinese whom I have met from Northern China have been extraordinarily warm and positive, and more so than any Spaniard or Latin American I have encountered Stateside and abroad. (Mind you, the Spanish language supposedly conveys or creates warmer relationships and experiences than in English.) Could it be that your experience of the Chinese language and culture be based on another region or a segment of another region? Or perhaps mainly on the personalities of kin and known community? If you continue with your choice not to teach your child Chinese, at least take advantage of his or her youth to master a second language. Bilingualism aids in expanding life experiences and improving upon the capacity to understand or incorporate other world views or ways of being. Chinese would be best since you already know some form of it to a certain extent, and also because of the consequences for a break in relating to his or her heritage, especially since East Asians tend to be viewed as outsiders regardless of natural citizenship. Languages do influence how one perceives and interacts with the world, but is your perception of what a language offers necessarily true? Keep asking yourself that. You could always ask an expert at a local university as well. And one more thing, given that you are ‘Canadian-born’, bear in mind that you probably had more exposure to the nuances and intricacies of English than in Chinese. You have grown up immersed in it outside of your household. Even though your house may have been the Chinese embassy on your block, you were still bombarded by the Anglophone world through radio, television, school, friends, and work. Would this not be telling of your limitations in Chinese? As for encoded positive experiences in English, notice how many aggressive metaphors it employs in daily language. ‘Let’s shoot for Wednesday.’ ‘We hit it off well.’ ‘I bombed the test.’ ‘Give it another shot.’ ‘I killed the sandwich.’ Also read up on argument-as-war metaphors in English (http://www.sil.org/lingualinks/lexicon/metaphorsinenglish/whatisanargumentaswarmetaphor.htm).

  • Adwyer

    I liked the idea that more distinctions linguistically correlates to more distinctions cognitively. Does this mean we can actively work on our vocabulary and have a wider lens for the world?

  • Don Draper

    please comment on what is the pre-language or conceptual level of thinking which you then use one language or another to express.  What is the nature of this pre-expressional level of thought?

  • ku

    A Yale researcher found whether a language has a strong or weak future tense affects the economic behaviors of the speakers. For example, compare “I will need the money” vs “I need the money.” Speaking in the present tense makes one think more about the immediate current situation, instead of delaying the thoughts to the future.
    He finds the speakers of weak-future-tense language such as German and Chinese, tend to save more money for the future than English speakers.

    The paper is “The effect of language on economic behavior” by M. Keith Chen

  • Stephanie Clarke

    Fascinating interview with Lera Boroditsky. I would have liked to hear more about the challenges in learning English after growing up with Russian as her first language. Her English was impeccable.

    • Jay

      Do we know when Ms. Boroditsky started speaking English? If she didn’t talk the language until she was already an adult, I’d be hopeful about perfecting my English one day. I speak near-perfect American accent after learning to speak English in my early 30s. But I can never talk an hour without falling short on something eventually, after being perfect maybe for the first ten minutes of a conversation. I had been wondering if I could ever achieve that true level of perfection. I would love to share the challenges in learning English I had, and am still having to some extent, if you are interested in hearing. I’m not a professor but do have a list of degrees. Going to graduate schools was certainly one of the contributing factors in shaping up my better language ability.

  • Ruth Ramel

    Was very interested in the discussion this morning.  I speak 5 languages, and at one time also Russian. Presently taking Mandarin at Stanford.  Have Swiss roots and wanted to share an interesting event.  Switzerland is 500 years old; one Canton split into two ~20 years ago because half spoke German and the other half French.  Culturally, language takes 1st place. 
    Unfortunately did not get the phone number or would have called in.

  • Sarah

    Urban areas that have roundabouts definitely have more use of absolute direction!

  • A quote from one of Boroditsky’s papers: “After decades of work, not a single proposed [linguistic] universal has withstood scrutiny.”

    Because people don’t want to know. If you look at all words, including swear words of all cultures, women have many things they are called, but “TT,” “DD,”  “BB,” “VV” (which is really W, and why don’t we call it ”double V”?) and “Kun” signify for vessels and females in every old culture that had writing. Even Mayan shows bilateral symmetry in words related to kinship.
    太太 =  “Mrs.” in Chinese (pronounced “taitai”: think about a Mrs. in a time of no birth control. This literally means “extremely extremely.” The body part that would be doubly extreme on a fertile, footbound Mrs. is her breasts). In Hebrew  דד = “nipple.” In Ancient Egyptian, “milk” was “irtt,” literally, “to make TT.” When something is important, like females to early survival, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation. Symbols suggesting women’s body parts are all over language.

    “Nipple,” “Mrs.,” “milk,” and “TT” are the same to early man, and frankly, to some late men as well. These characters don’t look identical, yet we can see (if we’re not in denial) a relationship to breasts in all these examples. Humans are simple. Especially male humans, and they wrote early scripts. For more info and a faster way to learn Mandarin: http://www.OriginofAlphabet.com

  • Three women, 姦 jian1 has meant “adultery, debauchery,” in China for 4,000 years. Now it even means “rape.” Why does no one use Chinese to analyze language? Why is Chinese not even in linguists programs, but instead in East Asian Language programs? Because we don’t want to admit that the alphabet is also pictures. “B” and “V” swap in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and English (ovary/obstetrician; oblong/oval). The Russian alphabet goes “A, B, V…” What is this close association of “B” and “V”?BVBreastsVaginaOf course it is, because humans are animals.www.originofaphbetcom

  • Sramsey

    i speak only one language– english – east texas area- how does language impact my own culture?  we have many ‘set’ expressions- how does this influence my interaction with others or within my own family? isnt spoken language talking in pictures and how we interpret those words- words trigger many points of view- and words weave stories

  • SusannaZaraysky

    I speak seven languages (Russian, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian) and I do find that my thought processes and
    character change in each language. What I found missing in this
    discussion was the phonological impact of each language on one’s
    thoughts and feelings. 

    I’ve written a book, Language is Music (www.languageismusic.com),
    about how to learn languages via music and media. I hear each language
    as its own song and therefore react differently to each language based
    on the resonance it has with me. As I can speak Spanish with various
    accents (Mexican, Argentine and continental Spanish) and my Portuguese
    has a mixed Brazilian and European pronunciation, I also feel how I act
    differently depending on which accent I am producing. When I speak in
    Argentine Spanish, I am more melodramatic and I feel much more anxious
    about life than if I am speaking in Mexican Spanish or using more jovial
    Caribbean or Colombian tones.

    Research on how language impacts thought needs to include how the sounds of languages effect our thoughts and feelings. The minor chord sounds of Russian most definitely put me in more melancholic and somber moods than the upbeat sounds of Italian or sensual Brazilian Portuguese.

    Spoken language is based of frequencies and our souls vibrate to the sounds of language. Those vibrations most certainly effect our minds and thoughts.

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