Psychologist Lera Boroditsky: learning the language will help you understand what makes us human

"Learning the language will help you understand what makes us human": a psychologist Lera Boroditsky on how language shapes thinking, Language significantly affects the picture of the world of man. It defines such fundamentals of human knowledge, as the concepts of space, time and causality. Article psychology Professor Lera Boroditsky about how the Indians of the Amazon do without numerals why the Jewish children are aware of their sexual identity before the Finnish children and how features of the Chinese language influence mathematical abilities of the people of China.

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Lera Boroditsky — associate Professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. Her team conducts research on problems of mental reflection of reality and the influence of language on cognitive processes.

I'm talking to a five year old girl from Pormpuraaw is a small region of residence of natives on the Western end of the Peninsula of Cape York in Northern Australia. If I ask her to point North, she does it without hesitation as my compass, totally. After some time I asked the same question at a lecture at Stanford University, where there are outstanding scientists — winners of prizes and medals for scientific achievements. I ask them to close their eyes so that they did not see the actions of their neighbors, and offer to point North. Many refuse immediately, as generally are not able to do it, others for some time, reflect, and then point to all possible directions. I repeated this experiment at Harvard, Princeton, Moscow, London and Beijing — the result was always the same.


Undeniable influence

So, a five year old girl, belonging to a particular culture, easily makes something that is not capable of leading scientists from a different culture. What can be caused by such a significant differences in one's cognitive abilities? Surprisingly, the reason may be that the difference in language. The idea that language features can influence cognitive function, was expressed several centuries ago. Since 1930-ies they received confirmation in the works of American linguists Edward Saphira (Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Worf (Benjamin Lee Whorf). Studying the differences between languages, they came to the conclusion that the speakers of different languages think in different ways. Such ideas were initially met with great enthusiasm, but unfortunately, they weren't backed up by objective data. To 1970-th years, many scientists are disappointed in the hypothesis Sepira worth and on the theory of the universality of thought and speech. But today, several decades later, finally appeared a large amount of factual material, indicating the formation of thought is influenced by language features. These facts contradict the established paradigm of the universality of thinking and open new fascinating perspectives in the field of the origin of the thinking and ideas about reality. In addition, the results obtained can have important legal, political and pedagogical value.

There are more than 7 thousand languages, and each of them requires special turns of speech. Suppose I want to announce that I saw the film "Vanya on 42nd street". In the language of MIAN distributed in Papua New Guinea, depending on the verb used my companion finds out that I saw the movie just yesterday or long ago. In Indonesian language, on the contrary, from the construction of the verb will not even be clear if I had seen it or just going to watch. In Russian language the verb will become clear on my gender, and Mandarin Chinese language I have to clarify whether we are talking about uncle paternal or the maternal line, and about the relationship by blood or by marriage — to each case uses a different noun. But the language of piraha (which is spoken by a small tribe living on one of the tributaries of the Amazon), I wouldn't be able to say "42nd street" — it has no numbers and only have the concept of "few" and "many".

In the language of Tagore (cook-Tiare) no such spatial terms as "left" and "right". Instead, they are used denote absolute directions — North, South, East and West. Differences between different languages are endless, but it does not mean that speakers of different languages different species. Can we say that talking on the MIAN, Indonesian, Russian, Mandarin or piraha ultimately different perceive, remember and reason about the same phenomena? On the basis of the data obtained in my and several other laboratories, we can assume that language does affect such fundamentals of human knowledge, as the concepts of space, time, causality and relationships to other people.

Back in Pormpuraaw. In the language of Tagore (cook-Tiare), which is spoken in this area, there is no such spatial terms as "left" and "right". Instead, they are used denote absolute directions — North, South, East and West. In English such notions, of course, also used but only to refer to the global directions. We never say, "wow, salad forks laid in the South-East of dining!" In the language of Tagore, by contrast, indicate absolute directions are applicable across all spatial scales: we can say, for example, that "the Cup is in the Southeast of the plate" or "the boy to the South of Mary is my brother." So that though as-that to communicate in this language, we must constantly Orient themselves in space.

Data obtained over the last two decades in the pioneering work of Stephen Levinson (Stephen C. Levinson from the Institute of psycholinguistics of the max Planck (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and John Haviland (John B. Haviland) University of California (San Diego), show that native speakers of languages that use indicate absolute directions, an amazingly well oriented in space, including in unfamiliar areas or buildings. They get it better than the regular inhabitants, speakers of ordinary language; moreover, their ability to go beyond the current state of scientific knowledge. Apparently, such an amazing opportunities are influenced by features of the language.

Features of perception of space entails, and especially the perception of time. In particular, my colleague from the University of California (Berkeley), Alice Gaby (Alice Gaby) presented speakers Tagore illustration with different unfolding time events — maturing man growing crocodile, eat a banana. Mix pictures, we asked the subjects to arrange them in a certain time sequence.

Each participant performed the procedure twice, being located in different directions. English speaking the task cards are laid out from left to right and Hebrew right to left: thus, the writing shape our understanding of temporal organization. In the case of talking on Tagore the picture was different: they had cards in the direction from East to West. In other words, if they were facing South, the cards laid out from left to right; North — right-to-left; East — to ourselves, to the West. None of the subjects we were reported as oriented sides of the world: they knew about themselves and spontaneously used the orientation in space for the formation of a temporary structure.

There are other differences in perceptions of time among different cultures. So, in English they say that the future ahead and the past behind. In 2010, a researcher from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) Linden miles (Lynden Miles and his associates found that speaking English, thinking about the future subconsciously leaned forward, and with thoughts of the past back. However, in the language of Aymara, spoken by the inhabitants of the Andes, on the contrary, the future behind and the past ahead. Respectively different, and their gestures: in 2006 Rafael nuñez from the office of the University of California in San Diego and Eva Switzer (Eve Sweetser) from the Department of the University of California at Berkeley showed that speakers of Aymara at the mention of the past, lean forward, and the future — ago.


Everyone remembers in their own way

Speakers of different languages use different ways to describe events, and as a result different remember the role of their participants. Every event, even the most fleeting, is a complex logical structure that requires not only a precise reconstruction but interpretation. Take, for example, the famous story about how former Vice President dick Cheney is hunting quail accidentally wounded his friend Harry Whittington. History can be described in different ways. You can, for example, to say: "Cheney had shot Whittington", and it will be right to point to Cheney as the culprit. It is possible to tell and differently: "Whittington was wounded Cheney", and this is somewhat distancing Cheney from the event. You can generally leave Chaney behind the scenes, writing, "Whittington wounded". Cheney himself said (literally): "ultimately, I'm the man who pulled the trigger of the gun, to release the charge, wounding Harry", thereby dividing himself, and an accident in a long chain of events. But the then US President George Bush came up with more clever wording: "He heard the noise of their wings, turned, fired, and saw that his friend was wounded, one phrase, transforming Cheney from the culprit of an accident in a simple witness.

Agentively is treated by linguists as a property of the language design, in which the person appears not a subject of action and object. Simply put, the man describes the situation as if it has no relationship to what is happening at the event has influenced not dependent on his circumstances.

Americans such verbal tricks rarely have an impact, because in English-speaking countries, where the main task of the children and politicians to shirk responsibility, neagative design sound as something is clearly evasive. Native speakers of English prefer speed, directly pointing to the role of a person in the event, such as "John broke the vase". In contrast, the Japanese and the Spaniards often use it neagative designs such as "the vase broke" (in Spanish- "Se, homra el florero"), in which the perpetrator of the incident is not directly stated.

My student's Fonzie like Caitlin (Caitlin M. Fausey) found that such linguistic features can lead to differences in the playback of events and the recollections of eyewitnesses. In our studies, the results of which were published in 2010, persons who speak English, Spanish and Japanese show video clips where two men were punctured balloons, broke eggs and spilled liquids, sometimes accidentally, others on purpose. Then they were asked to recall who exactly was responsible, as when identifying a suspect. From the point of view of linguistic characteristics, the results were predictable. The speakers of all three languages described intentional events using agentive designs such as "he pierced the ball and equally well remember the perpetrators of the events. However, the memories of random accidents had very distinctive differences. Participants who speak Spanish and Japanese, compared to English, rarely described incidents with agentowned designs and worse remember the culprit. As a whole, the ability to remember them was not worse — intentional events, the description of which the culprit, of course, indicated that they remembered so well as native speakers of English.

In Hebrew the designation of gender is extremely common (even the word "you" varies depending on it), in Finnish is used more rarely, and the English is in this respect an intermediate position. It turned out that grew up among Hebrew-speaking children to realize their sexual identity a year earlier than speakers of Finnish. Language affects not only the memorization, but on training. In many languages the names of numerals more clearly corresponds to the decimal system than English (Chinese, for example, there is no such exception as "eleven" for eleven and "twelve" for twelve, which break the General rule of adding to the number designating unit, the foundations of "-teen", similar to Russian"dtsat"), and their carriers faster master account. Number of syllables in numerals affects the memorization of phone numbers or account in mind. From language features to influence age awareness of their gender. In 1983, a researcher from the University of Michigan (Ann arbor) Alexander Giora (Alexander Guiora) compared three groups of children, native languages which were Hebrew, English and Finnish. In Hebrew the designation of gender is extremely common (even the word "you" varies depending on it), in Finnish is used more rarely, and the English is in this respect an intermediate position. It turned out that grew up among Hebrew-speaking children to realize their sexual identity a year earlier than speakers of Finnish, and English-speaking children took a secondary position.


What on what influences?

I gave some striking examples of differences in cognitive functions in carriers of different languages. Naturally the question arises — does the language on the thinking or Vice versa? Apparently, it is both: how we think depends on our language, but has the opposite effect. In the last ten years using a number of ingenious studies have shown that language undoubtedly plays a role in shaping thinking. It turned out that the change of structure of language influences cognitive function. So, learning new words for colors, affects the differentiation of shades, and the words denoting the time — on the perception of time.

Another way to investigate the effects of language on thinking is the study of people fluent in two languages. It turned out that the perception of reality to a certain extent determined by what language a man speaks in the moment. Two studies published in 2010 showed that this can affect even such fundamental properties as likes and dislikes.

One study was conducted by researchers from Harvard University, Rodamine Ogunnaike and his colleagues, the other team of Shay Danziger from the University of Ben-Gurion in the Negev. In both papers studied the subconscious preferences of the subjects have bilingual — Arabic and French in Morocco, Spanish and English in the United States and the Arab and Hebrew — in Israel. The latter, in particular, offered to quickly press keys in response to the presentation of different words. In one case, upon presentation of Jewish names (such as "Yair") or symbols of positive qualities (e.g. "good" or "strong") they had to press "M" key, and upon presentation of Arab names (for example, "Ahmed") or negative qualities (e.g., "bad" or "weak") — press "X". Then conditions changed so that one key corresponded to Jewish names and negative qualities, and the other Arab names and positive qualities. In all cases, the measured response time. This method is widely used to assess unconscious preferences, in particular associations between ethnicity and positive or negative traits.

In Chinese, for example, there are no such exceptions as eleven eleven, and carriers faster master account. To the surprise of scientists, the hidden preferences of the same people differed significantly depending on which language they are currently used. In particular, in the above study when using the Hebrew subconscious attitude to the Jewish names was more positive than when using Arabic. Apparently, the language is influenced to a much more diverse mental functions than is commonly assumed. People use it even when performing such simple tasks like distinguishing colors, counting dots on a screen or orienting in a small room. My staff found that, if to prevent the free use of speech (for example, to ask subjects to continuously repeat an excerpt of a newspaper), then these tasks is disturbed. This suggests that the characteristics of different languages can influence many aspects of our mental life. What is called thinking, is a complex combination of speech and non-speech functions, and maybe there isn't a lot of thought processes, which is not affected by the characteristics of the language.

The most important feature of human thinking — flexibility: ability to adapt notions of reality when it changes. One of the manifestations of such plasticity is the diversity of human languages. Each of them has a unique set of cognitive means and each is based on the knowledge and ideas accumulated in the culture for millennia. Language is a way of perceiving, of knowing and understanding the world, a priceless head on interaction with the environment created and fostered by our ancestors. The study of the effects of language on thinking will help to understand how we form knowledge about reality and its regularities, reaching new intellectual heights — in other words, the very essence of what makes us human.

P. S. And remember, just changing your mind — together we change the world! ©



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