Lera Boroditsky’s journey to answer one of psychology’s most intriguing and fractious questions has been a curious one. She’s spent hours showing Spanish speakers videos of balloons popping, eggs cracking, and paper ripping. She’s scoured campuses for Russian speakers willing to spend an hour sorting shades of blue. She’s even traipsed to a remote aboriginal village in Australia where small children shook their heads at what they considered her pitiable sense of direction and took her hand to show her how to avoid being gobbled by a crocodile. Yet she needs little more than a teacup on her office coffee table to explain the essence of her research.
“In English,” she says, moving her hand toward the cup, “if I knock this cup off the table, even accidentally, you would likely say, ‘She broke the cup.’ ” In Japanese or Spanish, however, intent matters, she explains.
If one deliberately knocks the cup, there is a verb form to indicate as much. But if the act were an accident, Boroditsky says, a smile dancing across her lips as she translates from Spanish, the speaker would essentially say, “The cup broke itself.”
The question is: Does the fact that one language tends to play the blame game while the other does not mean that speakers of those languages think differently about what happened? If so, what might linguistic differences tell us about cognition, perception, and memory—and with what implications for such perennial debates as the influence of nature versus nurture? Welcome to the intensely spirited academic debate on which Boroditsky has spent the last decade shining a bright new light.
As anyone who’s studied a new language understands well, languages differ in myriad ways beyond simply having, as comedian Steve Martin once observed, “a different word for everything.” They may assign nouns different genders—in German, moon is masculine; in French and Spanish, feminine—or none. Others require specific verb choices depending on whether an action was completed or not, or whether the speaker witnessed it or is reporting secondhand.
Boroditsky is not a linguist. She is a cognitive scientist—specifically, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University—who pays attention to what a speaker of a given language thinks, perceives, and remembers about an event. In that realm, the answer to the blame-game question turns out not to be obvious at all.
Boroditsky’s research suggests, for example, that the mechanics of using a language such as English, which tends to assign an agent to an action regardless of the agent’s intent, also tends to more vividly imprint that agent in the speaker’s memory. She is amassing a body of intriguing and creative evidence that language influences how its speakers focus their attention, remember events and people, and think about the world around them. And these influences may provide insight into a given culture’s conception of time, space, color, or even justice.
Consider space. About a third of the world’s languages do not rely on words for right and left. Instead, their speakers use what are called absolute directions—north, south, east, and west. For everything. In Australia, for example, if a coach were leading a basketball clinic for the aboriginal Thaayorre in their native language, she’d have to order her players to dribble up the south side of the court, fake east, go west, then make a layup on the west side of the basket.
The upshot of the need to constantly stay oriented in order to communicate the simplest concept, says Boroditsky, is that in communities of these speakers, even small children can perform phenomenal feats of navigation, and everyone is constantly mentally synchronizing their spatial relationships.
Boroditsky’s colleagues and mentors say her research is generating breakthrough insights. She is “one of the first to show truly convincing effects of language on cognitive processes,” including mental imagery, reasoning, perception, and problem solving, says Dan Slobin, a professor emeritus of psychology and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Slobin, like Boroditsky, is often called a “neo-Whorfian” cognitive scientist. The connection between language and thought has long captivated poets, philosophers, linguists, and thinkers of many sorts, but the modern debate has its roots in the work of the early-20th-century American linguist Benjamin Whorf and his Yale mentor, Edward Sapir. They thought that the structure of language was integral to both thought and cultural evolution.
Others—most notably MIT linguist Noam Chomsky—later argued that all languages share the same deep structure of thought and that thought has a universal quality separate from language. Those scientists believe that languages express thinking and perception in different ways but do not shape thinking and perception.
Boroditsky’s research challenges this view. She has shown that speakers of languages that use “non-agentive” verb forms—those that don’t indicate an animate actor—are less likely to remember who was involved in an incident. In one experiment, native Spanish speakers are shown videos of several kinds of acts that can be classified as either accidental or intentional, such as an egg breaking or paper tearing. In one, for example, a man sitting at a table clearly and deliberately sticks a pin into a balloon. In another variation, the same man moves his hand toward the balloon and appears to be surprised when it pops. The Spanish speakers tend to remember the person who deliberately punctured the balloon, but they do not as easily recall the person who witnesses the pop but did not deliberately cause it. English speakers tend to remember the individual in both the videos equally; they don’t pay more or less attention based on the intention of the person.
Almost a decade ago, Boroditsky, then a young assistant professor at MIT, conducted a study of Mandarin speakers that thrust her into the spotlight. English speakers, she explains, tend to see time on a horizontal plane: The best years are ahead; he put his past behind him. Speakers of Mandarin, however, tend to see time both horizontally and vertically, with new events emerging from the ground like a spring of water, the past above and the future below. Boroditsky’s first paper on this work attracted what her colleagues say were unusually spirited rebuffs claiming the work was flawed and could not be duplicated. But later studies have shown the same results.
Boroditsky, 34, blends intellectual gravitas with an unmistakable love of whimsy. Photographs show her driving a banana-like vehicle around the Burning Man festival. She has dubbed her lab “Cognation,” and her tongue-in-cheek website includes funny profiles of her graduate students and an invitation to sing along to the “Cognation national anthem,” a music clip of Groucho Marx singing “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”
She had to be fearless to pursue her research fascination. “Language influencing thought was extremely controversial for decades,” explains Dedre Gentner, a Northwestern psychology professor who became a mentor to Boroditsky. “If you talked about language’s impact on cognition, you were considered an idiot or a lunatic. We talked about it in my lab, but I used to warn the students not to talk about it outside the lab. Lera,” she adds with a chuckle, “was bold enough to ignore that warning. It’s now a fully researched and discussed issue.”
Boroditsky’s results are attracting more and more researchers to the field and producing additional evidence for measured acceptance of Whorfian arguments. “I’m not sure I would have gone into this if I’d known it was so controversial,” she says. But an emotional and intense response from psychologists who previously rejected the idea that language affects thinking is not surprising, she says.
“This work is at the center of some of the biggest debates in the study of the mind—nature versus nurture; is the mind divided into modular regions; is there a special encapsulated language ‘organ’ in the brain. It’s pretty bothersome for someone to come along and say that perhaps many of the phenomena that we in psychology have been studying could differ from language to language. It would be much easier if we could just study American college sophomores and assume that our observations would be the same everywhere.”
Excerpted from Stanford (May-June 2010), which distinguishes itself from the alumni magazine pack with insightful in-depth features that are relevant far beyond the campus grounds. www.stanfordmag.org