Lost in Translation

We don’t shape language, language shapes us

| September-October 2010

  • Lost in Translation Image

    Linzie Hunter / www.linziehunter.co.uk

  • Lost in Translation Image

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.

4/4/2014 10:30:14 AM

Having the ability to speak various languages is fantastic. But http://www.thelanguagemachine.co.uk/language-areas/ is a difficult task and one most of us put off in the hope that the other person speaks English. This is why it's good to get learning from an early age.

10/11/2010 11:16:13 AM

And yet...Mandarin is noted as a nonsexist language: the same "ta" stands for him or her, and a "ren" is a person unless you choose to specify male or female. So of course China practiced foot-binding on its elite women, a sexist practice even more deforming than heels among Americans. How do neo-Whorfians account for that?

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