Check which one is now in command by asking yourself what adjectives you would use to describe a key or a bridge. Read on:
You are what you speak
New Scientist vol 176 issue 2371 - 30 November 2002, page 34
Alison Motluk meets the psychologists who aim to show that your mother tongue
really does affect the way you see the world
DOES the language you speak influence the way you think? Does it help define
your world view? Anyone who has tried to master a foreign tongue has at
least considered the possibility. And those who have ever had cause to
remonstrate with a foreign lover may even be convinced.
At first glance, the idea seems perfectly plausible. Conveying even simple
messages requires that you make completely different observations depending
on your language. Imagine being asked to count some pens on a table. As an
English speaker, you only have to count them and give the number - let\'s say
there are 11. But a Russian also has to consider what gender the pens are
(neuter), then use the neuter form of the word for 11. And a Japanese
speaker has to take into account their shape (long and cylindrical) as well,
and use the word for 11 designated for items of that form.
On the other hand, surely pens are just pens, no matter what your language
compels you to specify about them? Little linguistic peculiarities, though
amusing, don\'t change the objective world we are describing. So how can they
alter the way we think?
Scientists and philosophers have been grappling with this thorny question
for centuries. There have always been those who argue that our picture of
the Universe depends on our native tongue. Since the 1960s, however, with
the ascent of thinkers like Noam Chomsky and a host of cognitive scientists,
the consensus has been that linguistic differences don\'t really matter, that
language is a universal human trait, and that our ability to talk to one
another owes more to our shared genetics than to our varying cultures. But
now the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way as psychologists
re-examine the question.
This new generation of scientists is not convinced that language is innate
and hard-wired into our brain. \"Language is not just notation,\" says Dan
Slobin of the University of California at Berkeley. \"The brain is shaped by
experience.\" Slobin and others say that small, even apparently insignificant
differences between languages do affect the way speakers perceive the world.
\"Some people argue that language just changes what you attend to,\" says Lera
Boroditsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. \"But what you
attend to changes what you encode and remember.\" In short, it changes how
To start with the simplest and perhaps subtlest example, preparing to say
something in a particular language demands that you pay attention to certain
things and ignore others. In Korean, for instance, simply to say hello you
need to know if you\'re older or younger than the person you\'re addressing.
Even a day\'s difference can matter. Spanish speakers have to decide whether
a relationship is intimate enough to employ tu or formal enough to require
Usted. In Japanese, simply deciding which form of the word \"I\" to use
demands complex calculations involving your age, the age of the person
you\'re speaking to, your gender, their gender and your relative status.
This process is what Slobin calls \"thinking for speaking\" and he argues that
it can have a huge impact on what we deem important and, ultimately, how we
think about the world. To give another example, about a third of the world\'s
languages describe location in \"absolute\" terms: speakers of many Pacific
island languages, for example, would say \"north of the tree\" or \"seaward
from the tree\" rather than \"beside the tree\", as we might in English. In
these languages, you always need to know where you are in relation to fixed
external reference points, says Slobin. \"Even when you are in a windowless
room, or travelling in a bus in the dark,\" he says, \"you must know your
location relative to the fixed points in order to talk about events and
locations.\" So, even if you didn\'t use the word \"north\" in conversation, you
would always know where it was.
Whether your language places an emphasis on an object\'s shape, substance or
function also seems to affect your relationship with the world, according to
John Lucy, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in
Nijmegen in the Netherlands. He has compared American English with Yucatec
Maya, spoken in Mexico\'s Yucatan Peninsula. Among the many differences
between the two languages is the way objects are classified. In English,
shape is implicit in many nouns. We think in terms of discrete objects, and
it is only when we want to quantify amorphous things like sugar that we
employ units such as \"cube\" or \"cup\". But in Yucatec, objects tend to be
defined by separate words that describe shape. So, for example, a \"long thin
wax\" is a candle. Likewise, \"long banana\" describes the fruit, while \"flat
banana\" means \"banana leaf\" and a \"seated banana\" is a \"banana tree\".
To find out if this classification system has any far-reaching effects on
how people think, Lucy asked English and Yucatec-speaking volunteers to do a
likeness task. In one experiment, he gave them three combs and asked which
two were most alike. One was plastic with a handle, another wooden with a
handle, the third plastic without a handle. English speakers thought the
combs with handles were more alike, but Yucatec speakers felt the two
plastic combs were. In another test, Lucy used a plastic box, a cardboard
box and a piece of cardboard. The Americans thought the two boxes belonged
together, whereas the Mayans chose the two cardboard items. In other words,
Americans focused on form, while the Mayans focused on substance.
But how significant are these findings? \"Yucatec people don\'t live in a
world of artefacts,\" says Paul Bloom from Yale University. \"If you could get
these results in the Japanese I\'d be convinced.\" Similar studies with
Japanese speakers, however, have proved inconclusive.
Undeterred, Lucy points to his own studies indicating that all young
children tend to focus on the same qualities - shape in the case of objects
like combs and boxes, and material when it\'s something amorphous like sugar.
Then, at about the age of eight, differences begin to emerge that reflect
language. \"Everyone comes with the same possibilities,\" he says, \"but
there\'s a tendency to make the world fit into our [linguistic] categories.\"
Boroditsky argues that even artificial classification systems, such as
gender, can be important. To an English speaker, the idea that words can
arbitrarily be considered male or female or neutral is peculiar. It makes no
sense that words like \"bra\" and \"uterus\" can be masculine while \"penis\" can
be feminine. What\'s more, there is no agreement between languages. The word
\"sun\" is neutral in Russian, feminine in German, and masculine in Spanish.
Some psychologists argue that these inconsistencies suggest gender is just a
meaningless tag. Boroditsky disagrees. To construct sentences in these
languages, she says, you end up thinking about gender - even if it\'s
arbitrary - thousands of times every day.
To test how this affects the way people think, she presented Spanish and
German-speaking volunteers with nouns that happened to have opposite genders
in their native tongues. \"Key\", for instance, is feminine in Spanish and
masculine in German, and \"bridge\" is masculine in Spanish and feminine in
German. Boroditsky asked the volunteers to come up with adjectives - in
English - to describe these items. German speakers described keys as
\"awkward\", \"worn\", \"jagged\" and \"serrated\", while Spanish speakers saw them
as \"little\", \"lovely\", \"magic\" and \"intricate\". To Germans, bridges were
\"awesome\", \"beautiful\", \"fragile\" and \"elegant\", whereas Spanish speakers
considered them \"big\", \"dangerous\", \"solid\", \"strong\" and \"sturdy\".
\"These are really gender-laden terms,\" says Boroditsky. She confirmed this
by asking a team of \"gender-blind\" English speakers to rate the adjectives
used in these responses as either masculine, feminine or neutral.
Oosative or soupative?
Critics argued that perhaps the classification of objects according to
gender has more to do with people\'s culture than the language they use. So
Boroditsky took English speakers and taught them a made-up language, called
Gumbuzi. In Gumbuzi, words were categorised according to gender-neutral
labels \"oosative\" or \"soupative\". Oosatives included a fork, an apple and a
guitar. Soupatives included a spoon, a pear and a violin. And as well as
remembering the Gumbuzi word for each object, volunteers had to remember
which category they belonged to. She then assigned pictures of ballerinas
and brides, or boys and kings, arbitrarily to either group.
Despite the fact that the English-speaking volunteers had no experience of
gender assignment in their native tongue, when the picture of the violin was
lumped in with the feminine images, they described it as \"artsy\", \"curvy\"
and \"delicate\", whereas when it was with the masculine pictures, people
described it as \"impressive\", \"shiny\" and \"noisy\".
The Gumbuzi speakers showed all the same effects as the German and Spanish
speakers, says Boroditsky. And she has an idea why. Afterwards, when asked
how they remembered which items belonged in which category, the volunteers
admitted they\'d focused on male or female attributes. \"If you can make
something meaningful, you can remember much better,\" says Boroditsky.
She suspects that this same process may be happening, albeit less
intentionally, while we learn real languages. \"The private mental lives of
people who speak different languages can be very different,\" she argues.
\"This is incredibly important if you are interested in the way people
But critics, including Lila Gleitman from the University of Pennsylvania,
are unconvinced. She says the questions that Boroditsky asks her volunteers
make no sense, so people just guess at an answer. It\'s a bit like studies
where people are asked: \"Which is the better example of an odd number, 7 or
15?\" and most people answer \"7\". \"If you can\'t make head nor tail of the
question,\" says Gleitman, \"you do the best you can.\" Bloom, too, has
reservations. He believes that for gender influences to be significant in
altering our world views they would have to spill out into other domains. To
test whether this does happen, Boroditsky is currently analysing bridge
design in countries that speak Spanish or German.
The general consensus is that while the experiments done by Lucy, Boroditsky
and others may be intriguing, they are not compelling enough to shift the
orthodox view that language does not have a strong bearing on thought or
perception. The classic example used by Chomskians to back this up is
colour. Over the years, many researchers have tried to discover whether
linguistic differences in categorising colours lead to differences in
perceiving them. Colours, after all, fall on a continuous spectrum, so we
shouldn\'t be surprised if one person\'s \"red\" is another person\'s \"orange\".
Yet most studies suggest that people agree on where the boundaries are,
regardless of the colour terms used in their own language.
But it\'s not as simple as that. Some studies - including one of
hunter-gatherers from New Guinea called the Berinmo - do suggest that
language affects our interpretation of colours. Other findings are open to
debate. Besides, Boroditsky and others argue that colour is not the best
example to test their idea because it can be observed directly. They believe
language may wield its strongest influence in abstract domains, such as
concepts of time, love, numbers and political ideas, where sensory
information can\'t really help.
Consider time. Many languages use spatial terms to describe it. In English,
we say things like \"The best is ahead of us\" or \"We\'re behind schedule\" or
\"Let\'s move the meeting forward\". To English speakers, in other words, time
is horizontal and the future lies ahead. In Mandarin, however, time is
vertical, springing up from the ground like oil from a well, and this is
reflected in the phrases that Mandarin speakers use to talk about it. Point
to the future and it\'s down, not straight out. But does this little
To find out, Boroditsky took Chinese volunteers bilingual in Mandarin and
English and had them watch fish swimming on a computer screen - in some
cases vertically, and in others horizontally. In English, she asked
questions like, \"Does March come earlier or later than April?\" She reasoned
that if her volunteers were thinking about time vertically, then the fish
swimming straight up the screen should speed up those thoughts, and the
opposite should be true for other volunteers who spoke only English. This is
indeed what she found. Boroditsky sees this as evidence that people think of
time in fundamentally different ways depending on their native tongue. But
Gleitman is quick to counter that we can be taught very easily to think of
time in different ways - and that Boroditsky\'s own follow-up studies confirm
Perhaps more compelling is the idea that the language you speak
systematically influences your interpretation of events that you don\'t
witness yourself, but only hear about. \"Almost everything we know about the
world comes through language,\" Slobin points out. Speech allows us to
experience the world vicariously in a way that no other animal can. We tend
to assume that a description conveys the same message whatever the language.
But if Slobin is correct, the language we use may alter our understanding of
everything from current affairs and history to politics and celebrity
He wanted to know if the way languages convey action could have a bearing on
how we visualise events and what we feel about them. We all live in the same
objective world, but different languages focus on different aspects of it.
In languages such as English, Dutch, Russian, Finnish and Mandarin, for
instance, verbs are very expressive in describing the way action takes
place. Other languages, such as Spanish, French, Italian, Hebrew and
Turkish, tend to use simpler action words, such as \"go\", then perhaps add a
few words to indicate how the subject moved, for instance, \"while running\".
The former languages provide manner \"for free\", while the latter have to
append it - and often don\'t even bother.
Bilingual people report that news seems much more dynamic, full of energy
and violent when written in a language like English. Examples in newspapers
appear to bear that out. Describing a confrontation between Greenpeace and
the authorities, one British paper, The Guardian, described how French
troops \"stormed\" the boat and \"clambered\" aboard, and how Greenpeace
\"breached\" the exclusion zone to \"power\" across the lagoon in dinghies. Le
Figaro, a French paper, wrote that French authorities \"took control\" of the
vessel and that activists were \"crossing the limits\" into French territorial
This led Slobin to wonder whether speakers of languages with prosaic verbs
compensate somehow, perhaps by mentally embellishing simple words with extra
action. To test this idea he gave English and Spanish monolinguals passages
to read from Spanish-language novels. English speakers read direct, not
literary, translations. So, for example, a passage from Isabel Allende\'s
novel La Casa de los Espiritus read in English like this:
\"He picked up his bags and started to walk through the mud and stones of a
path that led to the town. He walked for more than ten minutes, grateful
that it was not raining, because it was only with difficulty that he was
able to advance along the path with his heavy suitcases, and he realised
that the rain would have converted it in a few seconds into an impassable
Afterwards, Slobin asked the volunteers to describe the way the protagonist
moved - and found the opposite of what he had predicted. The English
speakers reported rich mental imagery for the way the character \"stumbled\"
and \"trudged\" into town. Very few of the Spanish speakers, from Mexico,
Chile and Spain, did so. Most of them said nothing at all about the way the
protagonist moved and in fact reported seeing \"static images\".
What\'s more, Spanish-English bilinguals showed the same dichotomy. After
reading the Spanish version, they reported clear images of the man\'s
physical surroundings but said things like, \"I don\'t see any sort of
detailed action.\" Yet a typical response from the very same people,
answering the same question about the same passage written in English, was:
\"I can see more concrete walking and can sort of make out a pace... The
story feels different.\" So, far from embellishing, people using languages
like Spanish that lack colourful verbs apparently don\'t pay much attention
to motion. \"I find the Allende findings really puzzling,\" admits Slobin.
For the moment, Slobin and others are scratching their heads trying to
understand some of their findings but, if it does turn out that the language
we speak influences the way we think, the implications are far-reaching. We
already know that each language is unique and provides its own insights into
human history and culture, but if they also provide different ways of seeing
the world then they are even more valuable than we had assumed. \"We need all
of this kind of data to understand human nature,\" says Slobin.
And with at least half of the world\'s 6000 languages likely to disappear
over the next century, scientists are racing to learn what they can about
them. When languages become extinct, warns Slobin, so do some of their
unique insights. Boroditsky agrees. \"Some languages may have invented
certain ways of thinking that could be useful to us,\" she says. \"We don\'t
even know what treasures there are.\"
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