Date of publication: 2018-04-13 23:34
Clearly, languages require different things of their speakers. Does this mean that the speakers think differently about the world? Do English, Indonesian, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up attending to, partitioning, and remembering their experiences differently just because they speak different languages? For some scholars, the answer to these questions has been an obvious yes. Just look at the way people talk, they might say. Certainly, speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world just so they can use their language properly.
Aneta Pavlenko, . is Research Professor at the Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo. She is the author of The Bilingual Mind and many other books and articles.
LERA BORODITSKY is an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University, who looks at how the languages we speak shape the way we think.
Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it's impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it's impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can't be true, let's find out what is true.
The first undeniable advantage involves strategy. If you learned your L7 as a teenager or an adult, you have managed to figure out what strategies work best for you. The more extraverted among us enjoy talking to target language speakers, while the introverts prefer to pour over textbooks and grammar books. I, for one, am an avid reader and foreign movie watcher, always hoping that new words will find their way into my memory effortlessly, in the process known as incidental learning. Research also shows that learners who are literate in both of their languages, and those who have metalinguistic knowledge, are in a particularly advantageous position because, among other things, metalinguistic awareness allows them to make comparisons and generate creative hypotheses.
7 L. Boroditsky et al. "Sex, Syntax, and Semantics," in D. Gentner and S. Goldin-Meadow, eds., Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 7558), 66–79.
For English speakers, all these shades are still designated by the same word, "blue," and there are no comparable differences in reaction time.
Further, the Russian advantage disappears when subjects are asked to perform a verbal interference task (reciting a string of digits) while making color judgments but not when they're asked to perform an equally difficult spatial interference task (keeping a novel visual pattern in memory). The disappearance of the advantage when performing a verbal task shows that language is normally involved in even surprisingly basic perceptual judgments — and that it is language per se that creates this difference in perception between Russian and English speakers.
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The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. That's a lot of stuff!
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