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THE LANGUAGE WE SPEAK SHAPES HOW WE THINK

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'The scientific study of how language shapes thinking comprises decades’ worth of empirical discov­eries, published in academic jour­nals. The research shows not just that language shapes thought, but also how language shapes thought.

Here is one rule of thumb: if a distinction is habitually made in lan­guage, it will be made in thinking. If a distinction is not made in language, all bets are off (people may pick it up some other way or they may not). For example, Finnish does not distin­guish between “he” and “she” (the same pronoun is used for both).

But it is not the case that Fin­nish speakers are unaware of biologi­cal gender and are only able to re­produce by virtue of randomly bump­ing into each other (and once in a while a happy accident occurs and phew, a new Finn is born). Clearly, other sources of information exist.

However, features of language can make it easier to discover patterns in the world. For example, children learning Finnish as their first language take almost a year longer to figure out whether they are a boy or a girl than children learning Hebrew (Hebrew marks gender prolifically, so that even the word “you” is gen­dered). Anglophone children fall in between. In mathematics, children learning Mandarin get the base-ten insight sooner than Anglophone chil­dren because Mandarin number words make the base-ten insight transparent whereas English makes it confusing with irregular words like “eleven” and “thirteen”.

Having a word confers benefits in memory and reasoning and helps us pull apart overlapping representa­tions to make more precise distinc­tions. This is why every area of ex­pertise (be it medicine, finance or sailing) develops its own new vo­cabulary.

We do this not just because it helps us talk about our new knowl­edge, but because it also helps us think, providing a compact code for complex conceptual structures to make them easier to mentally manipulate and keep in working mem­ory.

You can see the same effects in child development: as children ac­quire words and linguistic construc­tions, their ways of organizing the world and their cognitive abilities transform.

Humans are marvelously flexi­ble and inventive creatures. Flexibility in human thought is pre­cisely what gives rise to the amazing linguistic and cognitive diversity that exists around the world. Human minds can create radically different construals of the same physical world. As a result, languages (and their corresponding mind-sets) can set off on different tracks and di­verge in remarkable ways.

Take our understanding of time, for example. In English, the future is ahead and the past is behind. But in Ayamara, this pattern is completely reversed. The Ayamara place the fu­ture behind them and the past in front of them, both in the way they talk and in the way they gesture. In Mandarin, the past can be above and the future below.

Even how a language is writ­ten matters: English speakers like to lay out time from left to right while Hebrew speakers do it right to left. But for Kuuk Thaayorre speakers (who do not think in terms of left and right and instead rely on cardi­nal directions), time goes from east to west. So, when facing south, it goes left to right, when facing north it goes right to left, when facing east it comes towards the body, and so on.

Being able to invent all these different ways to conceive of time (reversing directions, or putting time in an entirely different cardinal co­ordinate frame) requires great flexibility.

But once we have got a system, we tend to stick to it. We are crea­tures of habit, after all. Most English speakers have never thought of the past as being in front of them, and when they hear about it, it seems viscerally wrong. Further, while it is possible to invent things on your own that do not already exist in your language, this is not always easy.

Take number systems, for ex­ample. It took humans a long time to develop exact numbers, and the idea of zero took even longer. This is not a project for an afternoon. Left to our own devices, few of us would invent a number system from scratch in the course of a lifetime.

But if a number system has al­ready been helpfully built into your language, you will probably learn it, and in this way benefit tremendously from the discoveries of others, standing on the shoulders of those who have come before you.

Sometimes the idea that lan­guage shapes thought is caricatured to mean that language limits think­ing, that language is a straitjacket. This does a great injustice to the role that language plays in cognition.

Language is a teacher, a guide, a toolkit and a scaffold for thinking. We learn a great deal from the structures embedded in language, and be­cause these structures differ, people who learn different languages end up learning different ways of scenting the world.

Adaptedfrom Lera Boroditsky

 

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Читайте в этой же книге: DOWNSHIFTING | THOUSANDS DREAM OF DOWNSHIFT | A RICH LIFE, SPACE AND GOOD FRIENDS | A VERY CHINESE REVOLUTION | Vocabulary | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Vocabulary Notes | COMMUNING THROUGH CLEANING |
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