Lera Boroditsky was chosen as an Utne Reader visionary in 2011. Each year Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries–people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them.
Humans have invented 7,000 languages around the globe. “Each one is its own universe,” says Stanford University cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, who conducts groundbreaking research on how language shapes thought. Her theories make her a figure of controversy among linguists like Noam Chomsky, who has long contended that thought and perception are universal entities expressed–but not shaped–through language.
Boroditsky makes the bold claim that “different languages invite speakers to develop different cognitive skills.” For example, some cultures have words for left and right; others don’t recognize these egocentric concepts, instead relying solely on cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). You might think indigenous Australians growing up without a way to say “turn left” would have a tough time communicating directions, but as Boroditsky learned through research and firsthand observation, “It turns out the kids have incredible spatial knowledge.” Children as young as 5 are able to stay constantly oriented. Their language has shaped their minds.
Boroditsky’s current fascination is “how we represent causality–to blame, to be responsible, to praise.” Her recent study looked at how two groups of people perceived a rash of city crime described alternately as “a beast” and “a virus.” The different metaphors in an otherwise identical narrative formed fundamentally different understandings of what happened and how to intervene. The beast group focused on police presence and locking away criminals, whereas the virus group sought social reform to stop the spread of crime.
Differences between languages are often framed as a nuisance, a barrier. Boroditsky sees them as a gift that allows us to see cultures in new ways: “That’s the magical part of looking at language.”